Opera review: Long Beach Opera stages abandoned opera in abandoned warehouse
If Long Beach Opera opened its 2011 season Saturday with a radicalized version of Luigi Cherubini’s “Medea” in an abandoned furniture warehouse, the EXPO Building on Atlantic Avenue, well, somebody had to do something like this sooner or later. It would be hard to think of an opera more historically important and with more impressive advocates that has so struggled to find a niche in the repertory.
The original French version, with spoken dialogue, had its premiere in Paris as “Médée” in 1797. A few years later, Beethoven modeled “Fidelio” after it. Loosely based on Euripides, Cherubini’s portrayal of the heroine who murders her two children out of revenge for an unfaithful husband, proved horrifically brutal enough to even shock Parisians in the late stages of their revolution. Yet, in one of opera history’s extraordinary ironies, Cherubini’s lavish choral scenes helped usher in sumptuous French Grand Opera.
At the other extreme, “Carmen” was stylistically another successor of “Médée.” Brahms hailed “Médée” as “the highest peak of dramatic music.” An Italian version, “Medea” (with dialogue turned into recitative), became a star vehicle for Maria Callas. She sang the role often, including at La Scala in 1953 with Leonard Bernstein conducting, and inspired other notable sopranos to briefly take up the opera.
Still, Cherubini -- an excellent craftsman but lacking a Beethovenian-sized vision and personality -- couldn’t catch on. Bernstein never conducted a note of Cherubini with the New York Philharmonic. The composer is considered a quixotic specialty of Riccardo Muti. The EMI recording of the live Callas/Bernstein performance is maybe the scariest display of a woman scorned on disc, yet it is the only major Callas opera set out of print.
Enter audacious Long Beach Opera. Andreas Mitisek, LBO’s artistic and general director, has rethought the work. He based his version on the original French “Médée,” leaving in some of the original dialogue, but also adding bits of Euripides’ “Medea” and Pierre Corneille’s 1635 play “Médée.” He and soprano Suzan Hanson, the production’s Medea, made their own colloquial singing translation into English.
Not everything works, but what does, works very powerfully. In a pre-performance talk, Mitisek said he wanted an abandoned space to help provide a sense of Medea as a woman abandoned by the mythological Jason, whom she helped to obtain the Golden Fleece and who fathered her two sons. The audience surrounds the platform, with the orchestra set off in a far corner. All the characters remain on the stage throughout the show, curling up into little balls when not needed.
The setting is an indistinct postmodern time zone. Jason, in a white dinner jacket and loose tie leaves Medea for Dirce, a Paris Hilton-like party girl -- the daughter of a creepy Creon, king of Corinth. Medea is a sorceress, one arm snaked with sinuous tattoos, in a modern gown.
Christine Cover Ferro designed the effective costumes, but Mitisek wore one hat too many. Conducting off in the distance (watched by the cast on murky video monitors), he clearly couldn’t be everywhere at once, and it is amazing the damage one misplaced light can do. A bright spot on stage level was pointed directly in my direction for about half the show and I spent much of that time distracted, trying to find some way to shield it, or simply with eyes shut.
Even so, the connection with the stage was dramatic and compelling. Unlike the implacable Callas, Hanson treats Medea more sympathetically, a schizophrenic for whom a psychopharmacologist might be summoned. But what more chilling way to witness her lose her mind than through her richly forceful singing directly in your face.
The soprano Ani Maldjian is a spectacular Dirce, her coloratura here was amusingly meant to be heard as an autoerotic byproduct. The mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell made the soulful most of Medea’s confidant, Neris. Jason and Creon are no match for Medea in this opera, and tenor Ryan MacPherson and bass Roberto Gomez revealed the banal insecurities that underlie heroic exteriors.
These excellent singers are equally excellent declaiming text. The production begins with an excerpt from Euripides as prologue before the overture. And Mitisek had the brilliant stroke to use the orchestral introduction of Act 3 as background music for a vivid description of Medea’s exploits of destruction taken from Corneille and devastatingly declaimed by Southwell (her eyes penetrating like lasers) and Dirce’s two serving maids (Ariel Pisturino and Diana Tash).
Mitisek conducted his fine small orchestra with exactly the right combination of classical discipline and dramatic fire. If only he will now take a few minutes to make sure the same winning formula can be applied to the lighting.
-- Mark Swed
"Medea," EXPO Building, 4321 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach; 2 p.m. Sat. and Feb. 6; $25 - $110; (562) 432-5934) or www.longbeachopera.org. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Photos: above, Suzan Hanson (Medea) with Peabody Southwell (Neris) directly underneath surrounded by handmaidens (Ariel Pisturino and Diana Tash); below, Ani Maldjian (Dirce) with Roberto Gomez (Creon). Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times.