The Zürcher greatly anticipated Charpentier’s Médée. Firstly, while conductor William Christie had resurrected the opera in 1984 after some 300 years, and performed it since in illustrious venues, this marked its very first performance in Zurich. Secondly, Andreas Homoki, who had worked with the American-born conductor to stage Charpentier’s David et Jonathas in Aix-en-Provence, was pleased to direct another of the Frenchman’s operas with Christie again.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Medée) and Ivan Thirion (Oronte) © Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Medée) and Ivan Thirion (Oronte)
© Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf

Christie’s has been a longer affair with the French Baroque. It took him to France in 1971, not just for immersion in French music, but to protest against the Vietnam War. The Baroque ensemble he founded in Paris, Les Arts Florissants, remains a configuration whose sound has been cited as consistently “clear, melancholic and bittersweet”. Since in this opera, as he contends, the music is the child of the libretto itself, he asks the same intellectual connection to the French from his musicians. “You have to know how to pronounce the texts,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s impossible to play this music if you can’t”. Not surprisingly, he brought a handful of Florissants members to supplement Zurich’s Orchestra La Scintilla, and French mezzo Stéphanie d'Oustrac sang the opera’s lead.

Médée, (Medea) who murders her two children to take revenge on her husband for his infidelity, has fascinated authors through the centuries, While the Roman poet Seneca portrayed her as a largely demonic entity, Charpentier, whose  five act opera premiered in 1693, saw his title figure as more human, and he and librettist Thomas Corneille imbued her emotions with a degree of ambivalence. The music plays on the internal drama of a woman who comes to understand both the magnitude of her husband’s treason, and herself as inextricably caught in the depths of a hopeless situation.

Nahuel di Pierro (Créon) © Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf
Nahuel di Pierro (Créon)
© Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf

The Zurich set (Hartmut Meyer) featured the most basic constructivist elements, the most striking being a broad, steep set of red wooden stairs used both facing the audience and seen from the side. Always present was a thick plane of “interim” flooring that was suspended on four enormous red fish hooks and raised and lowered some 20 times throughout the performance. Props were limited to a single red leather armchair, which spent most of its stage life tipped on its side.

Rather than to the senators and citizens of Rome, the choir here are uniformed members of a cricket team whose players show allegiance to their captain. A style switch follows, wherein the deaths of major protagonists and the two innocent children are prefigured by a voodoo-like host of creepy skulls in black tights, each with a shock of stand-up top hair. Further, a crowd of 12 mixed-gender “Marie-Antoinettes” in heavy silks and powered wigs, paddles slowly across the stage inside a huge, slowly rotating wooden wheel like those used in pet cages. Such enigmatic images may have served the metaphor of extreme desperation, but were too gimmicky not to affect the integrity of the piece. Apart from the bumbling Oronte (Ivan Thirion), who looked like Little John in a Robin Hood movie, the principals all had even-keeled costumes (Mechthild Seipel). The two children in haunting white contrasted effectively to the military dress of the patriots, and their mother’s foreboding black.

Disappointingly, any ebullience in the music − and it is Baroque, after all − was invariably met with a bunch of bodies nervously skittering from one side of the stage to the other. The cardinal rule of theatre to “move on stage only if there is a reason to move” was almost disregarded entirely in Homoki’s production. Indeed “jitter” set the pace for many of the scenes.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Medée) © Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf
Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Medée)
© Toni Suter & Tanja Dorendorf

Neverthless, as Médée, Stéphanie d’Oustrac gave a stunning performance. She carried herself nobly, despite a kind of cavewoman costume − bare-footed, one shoulder free − that doubled as a form-fitting sheath. While her loose mop of hair made a case for devil-may-care grooming, it added a degree of creepiness to her profile. More importantly, though, her voice showed tremendous colour and power.

As Jason, Reinoud Van Mechelen nicely portrayed the guy pulled apart by being married to one woman and in love with another. Mélissa Petit debuted with a little unevenness as his effervescent Créuse. As King Créon, Nahuel Di Pierro was too boyish for my taste, but he carried his music well. Overall, I the score needed more breathing room and variety; I missed arias that stood apart as melodic or full-bodied. Further, because the “tragedy” of this Médée even included hackneyed comic moments − the stumbling soldiers, the awkward lovers – a degree of Broadway spoof was part of the mix, and indeed, the over-styled Ziegfield Follies girls made an appearance in gold lamée. In sum, while Charpentier’s music was spirited and superbly played − particularly with additions of the Baroque lute, cello, gamba and solo violin  − the staging offered little that was an inspiration or embellishment.

**111