A mother murders her children in order to take revenge on her ex-lover marrying a princess. It sounds as if it might be a plot from Game of Thrones, but no, this is Luigi Cherubini’s masterpiece Medea which opens Wexford Festival Opera, which specialises in rediscovering neglected operas. And what an opening – the superlative cast brought this work to life, imbuing every note with a thrilling intensity.

Lise Davidsen (Medea), Rioch Kinsella and Anthony Kenna © Clive Barda
Lise Davidsen (Medea), Rioch Kinsella and Anthony Kenna
© Clive Barda

Maria Callas’ rediscovery of the opera in the mid-20th century has meant that Medea is still heard every now and then. It’s not the sensational story driven by raw passion alone that has ensured its survival. The opera features music that is as exciting and absorbing as the drama itself.

Written just six years after Mozart’s The Magic Flute, it’s a world away both in musical expression and the savage fury of the work. François-Benoît Hoffman used Euripides’ play of Jason and the Golden Fleece as the basis for his libretto. Jason has left the sorceress Medea, with whom he has had two sons, and is on the point of marrying Glauce, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Medea seeks revenge for this decision. Using her servant Neris as an envoy, she gifts Glauce a poisoned robe and crown, thereby polishing off her rival. Then she murders her sons before she is engulfed in flames.

Adam Lau (Creon) and Ruth Iniesta (Glauce) © Clive Barda
Adam Lau (Creon) and Ruth Iniesta (Glauce)
© Clive Barda

Director Fiona Shaw updates Medea to current times, with set designer Annemarie Wood’s gym/rowing club forming the backdrop for the first act while a children’s room formed the basis of Acts 2 and 3. While filicide is not an hilarious topic, Shaw manages to imbue the first act with some wonderful comedic moments. The overture featured a mime of the back story of Jason and Medea, with the murder of Medea’s brother being acted out as an amusing children’s game. There were some inspired moments to Glauce’s hen party where, in between the champagne quaffing and the massages, Glauce becomes aware of the sinister shadow of her rival from a celebrity magazine. The social class distinction was nicely accentuated by Medea arriving as a cleaner amidst the arriviste wealth of the leisured class while Medea’s spraying of Glauce with a Tesco cleaning spray was both uproarious and a sinister presage of things to come.

Sergey Romanovsky (Jason) and Ruth Iniesta (Glauce) © Clive Barda
Sergey Romanovsky (Jason) and Ruth Iniesta (Glauce)
© Clive Barda

Much of the action of the subsequent acts is the psychological debate within the mind of the eponymous heroine. As the storyline darkens, the humour dies out, the last glimpse being the kiss between Jason and Medea (in itself an interesting complexity added by Shaw) interrupted by the metallic ring of Jason’s mobile phone. Given the modern day setting, the poisoning element failed to convince with its overtones of outdated witch’s hexes. The filicide was daringly played out in front of our eyes with Medea smothering her sons with pillows, the two young boys Anthony Kenna and Rioch Kinsella kicking very realistically.

There were some glorious voices on offer tonight but it was Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen who shone as Medea. Gifted with a magnificent voice of great power and beauty she effortlessly soared up to all the high notes without the slightest strain. Her grave doubts of whether she could go through with murdering her children in Act 3 were heartmeltingly tender while her moments as scorned woman were incandescent. Even when Medea is agitated, Davidsen's voice never lost that fulsome tone and she shaped each phrase with great sensitivity. She also proved to be an excellent actress: it’s not easy not to appear psychopathic, but Davidsen steered a convincing line between soul-searching desperation and spurned love driven to a hideous revenge.

Lise Davidsen (Medea) © Clive Barda
Lise Davidsen (Medea)
© Clive Barda

Sergey Romanovsky delivered a devious Jason, strong-voiced and well-acted, and Raffaella Lupinacci, in fine voice, expertly delineated the complex role as the au-pair Neris. Her declaration to stay with Medea shimmered with honest emotion. Ruth Iniesta’s Glauce captured the pre-nuptial’s anxiety to a tee while Adam Lau’s King Creon defended her powerfully.

The chorus of Wexford Festival Opera was excellent, singing lustily at the start and then with great terror in the final moments of the opera. Stephen Barlow conducted at a smart pace but at times this resulted in a somewhat perfunctory performance, with a mismatch of vision between singers and orchestra.

It is true that Medea has its flaws but, as this performance proved, with Lise Davidsen in the title role and clever directing it can be an utterly compelling drama. 

****1