The opera is way too dark. It runs far too long. It’s requires a soprano with vocal cords of amalgamated steel to sing the title role. No wonder Cherubini’s Medea is rarely performed. According to OPERA America records, the opera hasn’t been performed in the United States in nearly 20 years.

© Julieta Cervantes
© Julieta Cervantes

That’s why if you are remotely close to the Glimmerglass Festival in Central New York this summer, you need to drop everything and buy yourself a ticket—right now. If you’re across the pond and have a private jet, start fueling it.

Medea tells a portion of the classic tale of one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world of the same name, who falls in love with Jason. She uses her magic to help him obtain the Golden Fleece. She even kills her own brother to ensure that Jason and she escape Colchis with the fleece. Cherubini’s opera begins after Jason and Medea are married, after she bears him two children, but their past history together is important to understanding why Medea becomes desperate for revenge against Jason. As the opera opens, Jason has forsaken Medea to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon. She poisons Glauce on her wedding night. But Glauce’s death does not slake her hunger for revenge, so she murders her own children. Jason is crushed by his sorrow. Médée returns to the temple and sets it on fire, and she escapes before both the temple and the palace go up in flames.

Everything about this production was simply magnificent. From the sets to the costumes to the stage effects to the orchestra to the singers to Medea. Especially Medea. In both her role and company debut, Alexandra Deshorties as Medea is spectacular—a tour de force. Her voice has power, range, and color as does her acting ability. To pull off a character of mythic proportions like Medea, who is emotionally ravaged to the extent Medea is, you need a consummate actress and singer. Deshorties imbues abundant texture into her interpretation of this demanding part. At times, she infuses a raw, reedy quality at the top of her range that immediately put me in mind of Callas for whom Medea was a signature role. Deshorties also has power in her mid- to upper-range and when combined with the wonderful acoustics of the house, she literally takes your breath away. Her complete, focused performance draws you into Medea’s world with such skill, that when Medea finally makes up her mind to kill her own children, you (almost) understand why.

However, it’s not enough to have a top-shelf Medea to have a first-rate show. This is Cherubini, after all. This is a complex, layered, three-act opera that requires perfect performance technique. It demands capable supporting players around Medea and a director and designers with a fresh vision for a show to lift up the music while making an ancient tale one capable of moving modern audiences.

The set designed by Joe Vanek has a contemporary and representational flair, which makes the story more accessible and less like an antiquity to be viewed at arm’s length. As the storyline darkens, the giant viper creeping around the base of the set pieces becomes more threatening. Vanek also designed the costumes which set the characters in the period without seeming strictly period—another smart choice which gave the work fresh interest value. I loved the virginal white gowns Glauce and her handmaidens wore to open the opera—fiercely ironic considering the storyline will shortly turn black as pitch. Even before I read program notes during which director Michael Barker-Caven and Vanek talk together about producing a new version of the show, it was apparent that theirs was a collaborative partnership. Barker-Caven had a vision for the show—a whole-stage-use approach— that he rolled out scene by scene, aria by aria with care and sophistication.

Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni who makes his U.S. debut with Medea plays a vital role in the show’s success. In his reflections on conducting the show, he describes Medea as both a “tremendous tragedy, as well as a delicate and refined musical jewel.” You could tell that he treasures the job he is tasked to do: breathe together, as he calls it, with his cadre of talented musicians to present a searing and challenging work.

While laurels are being handed out, a pair of accolades must go to the Young Artists tapped to sing major roles after the guests artists cast in the parts withdrew from the show. Jeffrey Gwaltney sings the role of Jason as if the part he suddenly inherited was worth more than the Golden Fleece. It was a fine opportunity for the young tenor, and he stepped up to the challenge masterfully while getting a head start on a promising career. Young Artist Jessica Stavros did a highly creditable job as Glauce and deserved the ovation she received at curtain call for her efforts.

Interestingly, Glimmerglass is offering two mainstage productions that feature calculating, malevolent women, Medea and Carmen, which frankly I found refreshing compared to the wildly overdone opera featuring the consumptive “Violetta Milquetoast.” Whereas Carmen is one of the most oft-performed operas in the United States, Medea has been sorely neglected in this country. That fact alone should pique the interest of veteran operagoers.

Now that I’ve seen both Medea and Carmen at Glimmerglass, I can say without equivocation that Medea is one hot ticket.

*****