Cherubini’s Medée (or “Medea” as it was billed here) has popped up with increasingly regularity over the last few years. A note in the programme for the Staatsoper Berlin’s new production outlines the various versions it has appeared in, all of which set out to solve what, on paper, seems an intractable problem with the 1797 work. Officially an opéra comique (a generic designation rather than reflection of content), Medée presents some of the same challenges that directors face with another opéra comique composed some 70 years later – Bizet’s Carmen.

Sonya Yoncheva (Médée)
© Bernd Uhlig

The problem, to paraphrase that same booklet note, is this: how to get an international cast of singers to make sense of the tirades of classical French verse that fill out the gaps between musical numbers. In the later 19th century, and when Maria Callas gave the work a boost in the mid-20th century, the answer was to perform it with inauthentic recitatives. Here director Andrea Breth opts simply to chop it down to the barest minimum, with just the briefest snippets of François-Benoit Hoffman’s text left to the numbers. It’s a pragmatic decision; but it seems to be less a solution than an evasion tactic. 

Nevertheless, there remains enough of the text to clash with Breth’s preferred setting (designed by Martin Zehetgruber), despite attempts to give earthy realism to its decorous vouvoying. That setting is some sort of underground logistics facility or garage, where shipping containers spilling over with Jason’s spoils lie about untidily in various rooms. It’s relentlessly grey and ugly, perked up only occasionally by its ability to revolve. The chorus are similarly grey – and regularly unseen. The principal's costumes, by contrast, are more colourful, Medea’s otherness signalled by a loose purple affair of Middle Eastern flavour pitted against the rest of the casts’ more formal attire. 

Iain Paterson (Créon), Elsa Dreisig (Dircé), Charles Castronovo (Jason) and Ensemble
© Bernd Uhlig

Daniel Barenboim conducts Cherubini’s score with love and attention, bringing out its Beethovenian punch and relishing in its inventiveness: Circé’s opening aria, delivered with bell-like tone and remarkable agility and stamina by the excellent Elsa Dreisig, is accompanied by extensive flute obbligato, and the bassoon takes on a starring role elsewhere. The fabulous solo playing in both was symptomatic of a performance by the orchestra that bristled with joy and imagination across the board, offering grandeur but also plenty of spring and lightness. 

Much of the singing was excellent, too, although it was a shame Dreisig had so little to do after that opening number. Charles Castronovo sang cleanly and elegantly as the good-for-nothing Jason, and Iain Paterson was a sonorous and authoritative Créon. Marina Prudenskaya made the most of her aria (the one with the bassoon) as Néris. And it’s difficult to fault the commitment of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. She presented grandezza and fierceness in equal measure, the voice offering luscious beauty allied with righteous fire, even if she occasionally risked veering off pitch in the more stately passages, and it was never easy to make much out of her French. 

Malik Bah, Toyi Kramer and Sonya Yoncheva (Médée)
© Bernd Uhlig

Yet, however hard Yoncheva tried, the drama never really felt in any danger of igniting. Breth’s dreary production clearly didn’t help, creating a sanitised environment in which the old-school diva-ism the role requires fitted uneasily. But there’s also a fundamental issue, it seems, with the piece itself. Whether our view of the Medea story is different now, whether we react more viscerally to its horrors than did Cherubini’s contemporaries, are vast and probably unanswerable questions. The fact remains that to modern ears – or mine at least – there’s an unbridgeable gab between his inventive but only intermittently powerful score, its character defined by aesthetic conventions of the time, and the drama being played out before us. 

There’s no doubting the commitment of the musical performance here, and of Yoncheva’s performance in particular, but dramatically this remained an unsatisfactory evening.