Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Scorned womanhood has no better archetype than Euripides's Medea. And you're unlikely to see a more powerful or affecting Medea than Nadja Michael's performance in Cherubini's opera Médée, in the first production of the new season at La Monnaie in Brussels (De Munt, if you're a Flemish speaker.)

© Vanden Abeele
© Vanden Abeele

Like all good Greek tragedy, we all know the story. The sorceress Medea has given everything for Jason, committing fearful crimes to win him the Golden Fleece. Jason repays her by ditching her in favour of the younger and gentler Dirce, whose father Creon sends Medea into exile. Her revenge is fearsome, murdering her own two sons by Jason and causing Dirce to be consumed in flames at her wedding.

Krzystof Warlikowski's three year old production gets its first revival. The portrait of a woman on the edge of despair is brought firmly into this century, with Medea's looks modelled on Amy Winehouse (pale skin, black hair and clothes, abundant tattoos). François-Benoît Hoffman's libretto is retained intact for the lyrics, but the elegant couplets of the original dialogue (Médée is an opéra-comique, with spoken word between the musical numbers) are replaced by modern words that are terse, to the point and brutal. It works brilliantly, speeding up the action and enhancing the tension and the audience's empathy with Medea's awful circumstances. Warlikowski conjures up phenomenal acting performances from all the main roles: Kurt Streit as the self-important but weak-willed Jason, Hendrickje Van Kerckhove as the terrified Dirce, Vincent Le Texier as the tyrannical but ultimately ineffective King Creon.

But it's Nadja Michael's performance that convinces most. Her first entrance is a real coup de théâtre: she slips into Dirce's wedding preparations from a side door, unnoticed by the other players on stage but very much noticed by the audience, frighteningly sexy in black PVC dress, bouffant black Amy Winehouse style hair and arrows of black eye makeup. The different sexual chemistries between her, Streit and Van Kerckhove are gripping.

The vocal aspect of Medea's role grows in importance as the opera proceeds, and it becomes a real star vehicle for a dramatic soprano. Michael's voice was up to the task in every way, with plenty of power, diction clear as a bell and stage presence and expressiveness to burn. Le Texier was the other outstanding singer in a generally strong cast, with a voice that was rich and commanding.

But the biggest revelation of the evening was quite how good Cherubini's music can sound when played by the extraordinary Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset. The dynamic and rhythmic contrasts are immense: time after time, a passage of calm would explode into fast paced drama, leaving me breathless. There was wonderful timbre from the period wind instruments and some lovely moments of individual virtuosity, and the third act prelude was a stunning performance on its own. I was surprised by how modern the score sounded - Médée was written in 1797, but sounds like a fully fledged romantic work.

La Monnaie is a lovely and relatively small opera house with good acoustics, but I have to mention a couple of caveats. Surtitles are provided in French and Flemish, so if you don't speak either language, make sure you know the opera before you go. And be careful about your seat selection: we were in a box seat around the side where we had fabulous sound but our view was severely restricted: both in acts I and III, there were substantial pieces of action that I couldn't see at all.

But setting those things aside, go and book your Eurostar tickets. Warlikowski's Médée is one of those outstanding nights at the opera that will stay in my memory for a long time.

*****