Euripides’ play Medea shocked Athenian audiences in 431 BC. It features a strong woman who kills her own children (as well as her romantic rival) to punish her husband, Jason, for abandoning her. It is unclear whether its initially frosty reception was due to its content or its departure from mythical canon, but Euripides was certainly innovative. His anti-heroine murders in cold blood and escapes unscathed. The psychological depth and proto-feminism of Medea has ensured it a place in the modern repertoire.

Sebastian Kohlhepp (Jason) and Cornelia Ptassek (Medea) © Thomas Aurin
Sebastian Kohlhepp (Jason) and Cornelia Ptassek (Medea)
© Thomas Aurin

Cherubini’s 1797 operatic adaptation is not so frequently played. But it, too, seems ahead of its time. Clearly delineated arias and ensembles, frequent repetition, and a certain stately grandeur point to its 18th-century origin. But Medea’s demanding, harshly expressive music and the interplay of orchestra and spoken dialogue (lost in later, unauthorized versions with sung recitative) are strikingly modern. 

The difficulty of casting Medea is likely one reason for the opera’s rare revivals. The role demands a large, commanding sound, coupled with the flexibility to get through wide intervals and quick streams of notes. It is also unrelenting: while the opera is short, Medea sings almost constantly from her first entrance. Oper Stuttgart has found a soprano up to the challenge in Cornelia Ptassek. Her large voice can get strident at the top and lost at the bottom, but she maneuvers it with fiery purpose. She chews up the scenery and intimidates even through the fourth wall.

Director Peter Konwitschny places the opera’s action in the present day. The curtain rises on a boozy hen do, with Kreusa (bubbly-voiced soprano Josefin Feiler) fretting about her impending marriage to Jason. Her gold-garbed father, King Kreon (warmly sung and suitably obnoxiously acted by baritone Shigeo Ishino), attempts to reassure her and finalizes his agreement with Jason (tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, with a bright, grainy sound and cruelly cool demeanor). Jason is a refugee, and this is a business deal. Kreon gets the golden fleece; Jason gets Kreusa and asylum for himself, his sons, and his crew. Passports are distributed with much excitement.

Cornelia Ptassek (Medea) and Helene Schneiderman (Neris) © Thomas Aurin
Cornelia Ptassek (Medea) and Helene Schneiderman (Neris)
© Thomas Aurin

Medea enters in ragged velvet to denounce her husband’s betrayal, and the tragedy unfolds from there. It’s especially tragic because Medea’s and Jason’s doomed sons are a frequent, endearing presence. (They even sing a verse of the third-scene chorus, usually assigned to one of the bridesmaids. Ariles Slimani and Jasper Meyer-Eggen chirped it out in strong treble voices.) They fight with lightsabers (including a suspiciously Last Jedi-ish moment), mix up recipes, and build forts. Medea turns barricading the door (to give her time to kill them) into a game in which they cheerfully take part. 

Moments of the staging border on farcical, and there were giggles from the audience when Medea sang while giving Kreon a blowjob, and again when she slit her children’s throats with bizarre speed and ease. But the ending reinforces the tragedy: a furious mob stabs Medea and her servant Neris (the scene-stealing, velvet-voiced mezzo Helene Schneidermann) to death, along with Jason, who tries to protect them.

The whole tragedy is given added immediacy performed in German, in an arresting new translation. Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze have created an unforced, singable libretto. Rhymes are where they should be, and they never jar. The German dialogue flows naturally from the mouths of this cast of excellent actors. I found it hard to catch all the spoken words (which, unlike the set pieces, were not accompanied by supertitles), a challenge complicated by the fact that characters sometimes speak over the orchestra’s playing. Then again, I am not a native German speaker.

Sebastian Kohlhepp (Jason) and Josefin Feiler (Kreusa) © Thomas Aurin
Sebastian Kohlhepp (Jason) and Josefin Feiler (Kreusa)
© Thomas Aurin

Conductor Alejo Pérez and the orchestra brought dramatic energy to Cherubini’s score. The brass blared and the violins screamed the start of the overture. Even the more subdued music had a sense of unstoppable momentum. The thundering storm at the top of the third act was a treat. The orchestra crashed and roared as Medea sat in front of the curtain calmly eating an apple. The chorus also impressed, with perfectly blended dulcet tones in the first act and angry exclamations in the third.

Without hitting the audience over the heads, this Medea sends a clear political message. The rejected refugees (Medea and Neris) are not obviously othered. Konwitschny could have coded them as Syrian, or Afghan, or any other group that encounters fear and discrimination. But he didn’t need to – the chorus’s treatment of them says enough. We watch as Neris is tied up and mocked, and Medea is pressured into sex with Kreon and threatened with separation from her children. Can we blame Medea for refusing to go quietly? For resorting to terror in her quest for revenge? Medea is a monster, but society is responsible for the monsters we create.

****1