The Greek mythological figure of Medea has inspired many poets, authors, composers and filmmakers over the centuries. Important examples are Euripides’ play from as early as the 4th century BC, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera from 1693, Jean Anouilh’s play written in 1946, and the cult film Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 which all deal with the subject.

Nicole Chevalier (Medea) © Monika Rittershaus
Nicole Chevalier (Medea)
© Monika Rittershaus

Aribert Reimann's Medea is based on the Franz Grillparzer trilogy The Golden Fleece written in 1890 and envisioned by the composer as a female counterpoint to his opera Lear. The Australian stage director Benedict Andrews conceives his Medea for Komische Oper Berlin to be a vulnerable woman and loving mother who is frightened by her own supernatural powers, driven by her emotions.

Medea and her lover Jason, both royal offspring of different kingdoms and an unwed couple, are on the run after having stolen the Golden Fleece. In addition, she is suspected of having murdered King Pelias at Jolkos. Medea and Jason and their two children ask for asylum in Corinth, which is granted by King Creon. In an effort to integrate, Medea buries her magic potions and the Golden Fleece and tries to assimilate, with little success. Jason has an advantage in that he is Greek and as a youngster played with Kreusa, the king’s daughter and his intended bride. Medea is in the way, is regarded as a sorceress of unclear origin, especially when a herald accuses Medea of murder. Jason continues to enjoy King Creon's protection, but Medea is asked to leave the country, leaving her children in the care of their father Jason and their soon to be stepmother Kreusa. Medea cannot bear this thought, sends a poisoned crown to Kreon and a gown that ignites to Kreusa, causing both their deaths. While the children are asleep, she slits their throats and finds an uncertain peace.

Günter Papendell (Jason), Nicole Chevalier (Medea) and Nadine Weissmann (Gora) © Monika Rittershaus
Günter Papendell (Jason), Nicole Chevalier (Medea) and Nadine Weissmann (Gora)
© Monika Rittershaus

After the world première at the Vienna State Opera in 2010, this is now the second new production of this work. Set designer Johannes Schütz creates an empty stage, covered in peat, a vast expanse of nothingness. A house is delineated with wire, a large orb floods the stage with cold light, Medea’s realm is always on the outside, in and around the peat pit. The costumes by Victoria Behr are timeless, Medea herself takes off a royal wrap at the very beginning and then has a white slip of a dress, which can be taken as a sign of her innocence or vulnerability. Because Andrews did not think it appropriate to have real children on stage, two life-sized puppets are apt stand-ins, rough-handled accordingly as the pawns they represent.

Nicole Chevalier is a perfect choice for this complex score and character. Physically, Andrews has her tramp and dig herself into the peat, smeared in flour and generally exerting herself non-stop for the entire time she is on stage. Her clear, strong soprano is capable of extended hysterical outbursts but also of the sweetest lullabies when she sings to her children and, especially after she has killed them, Reimann offers her a lyrical and existential resolution, at last, inner peace. Günter Papendell, with his handsome and virile baritone, embodied a Jason who is more of a has-been hero, now ready to settle down and lead a middle-class life. Tenor Ivan Turšić as King Creon is a pale and subdued character, most likely due to the way this part is written. Nadine Weissmann, as Gora, the confidante of Medea and nanny of the children, filled her mezzo part with empathy, a steadfast counterfoil to Medea’s excesses. Countertenor Eric Jurenas is the herald messenger of the gods delivering their scathing verdict in an other-worldly voice, complete with a bald head and green glitter gown. Polish soprano Anna Bernacka is Kreusa, who, like Chrysothemis in Elektra, just wants a happy family life, is the ill-fated princess for whom Reimann has written an almost lyrical part.

Nicole Chevalier (Medea) , Nadine Weissmann (Gora) and Günter Papendell (Jason) © Monika Rittershaus
Nicole Chevalier (Medea) , Nadine Weissmann (Gora) and Günter Papendell (Jason)
© Monika Rittershaus

Leading the very large Komische Oper orchestra – with special percussion units seated both to the left and the right of the hall, outside the pit – is American conductor Steven Sloane, guiding the musicians and singers through Reimann’s complex score in the operatic narrative. Reimann’s vast experience as a Lied accompanist results in resplendent tonal paintings for the singers, such as in the wind melodies for Medea, brass pomp for Kreon and harp-celesta passages for Kreusa. Altogether, it was a performance which kept the performers and audience gripped for two and a half hours of harsh, powerful and stirring music theatre.

*****