Monday, August 15, 2011


Alexandra Deshorties in the title role of Cherubini's Medea. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Reviewed by James Karas

Luigi Cherubini’s Medea has the distinction of perhaps being more famous for some of its productions than as an opera. It was first produced in Paris in 1797 in French and did not do well. It was subsequently translated into Italian and went through several versions but never managed to join the standard repertoire. It was all but forgotten until Maria Callas sang the title role in Florence in 1953.

Callas sang the role in Dallas in 1958, at Covent Garden in 1959 and at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus before 20,000 fans in 1961. All productions are invariably described as ”famous,” an example of the performance of an obscure opera becoming a cultural and historical event.

All of which leads us to the current production of Medea, not in Milan or London but in a small theatre on a green lawn on the shores of Lake Otsego, at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.

A loud “bravo” for an eclectic choice of opera to Artistic and General director Francesca Zambello is followed by an even louder cheer of approval for an outstanding production.

There may be a number of reasons for the paucity of productions but surely one of the main ones is the enormous vocal and acting demands of the title role. Iago, Lady Macbeth, Clytemnestra and Lizzie Borden look like pleasant neighbours compared to Medea. If you can’t remember what she did, here is a reminder: she killed her brother in order to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece; when her father gave chase as she and Jason were escaping, she chopped her brother’s body into pieces and threw it into the sea to put an end to the pursuit.

When Jason decided to abandon her and marry Princess Glauce, she had the latter poisoned and in order to take revenge on the faithless Jason, she murdered their children!

This is evil, hatred and a desire for vengeance on an Olympian scale. The singer who undertakes the role has to possess vocal power and acting ability to fulfill a role few have dared to tackle and fewer have succeeded.

Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties tackles the role with confidence and the result is a bravura performance. She has the vocal power and stamina and the acting ability to render an exceptional Medea. She moves around the stage with controlled furor and perhaps utter madness and dominates the production.

American tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, a member of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists program, replaced Jason Collins in the role of Jason. He gave an excellent performance as the hapless and faithless hero of Greek mythology.

American bass-baritone David Pittsinger was a sonorous and effective King Creon and mezzo soprano Sarah Larsen, another Young Artist, made her mark as the handmaid Neris.

Soprano Jessica Stavros was thrown into the role of Glauce to replace the ailing Wendy Bryn Harmer. It is a tough role and Glauce gets the first big aria of the opera (“Oh, Amore, vieni a me!”) near the beginning. Stavros, another member of the Young Artists Program, proved a disappointment. She sounded strained and was unable to do justice to the role. She has a big voice and there is no doubt that she can do better.

Medea takes place in mythical Greece (forget Corinthian columns) and Sets and Costumes Designer Joe Vanek places it nowhere. There are black panels and even the suggestion of The Lion’s Gate at Argos but the impression is that of primitiveness without being precise about it. It works.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus do a superb job under the baton of Daniele Rustioni.

Director Michael Barker-Caven delivers a powerfully performed and well-acted production of an opera that that requires guts and imagination to produce. A signal success.

Medea by Luigi Cherubini (music) and Francois-Benoit Hoffman (original libretto) in Italian version Carlo Zangarini opened on July 8 and will be performed nine times until August 16, 2011 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

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