Médée, Opéra Garnier, review

Saison 24/25. Palais Garnier, du 10 avril au 11 mai 2024.

Opéra national de Paris

When this show comes to an end, you feel something quite rare, apart from the warm joy of beauty that fills you from time to time. This time there is something more, a kind of jubilation that is a little guilty, it must be said, because Medea's vengeance is not one that satisfies the good. And yet everything about this remarkable music, this superb singing, each of these voices so right, this malicious and luminous staging, this flamboyant acting by the cast, and especially Lea Desandre's captivating, carnal Medea, is good and beautiful. But there is a secret, almost cloying laugh that gradually reveals that you are enjoying her revenge. Let's face it, we're on the same side as Médée here, and everything about the play, the staging, Thomas Corneille's text itself, carried along by Charpentier's music, all contribute to this. All of which makes us unknowingly accomplices in this cruel, painful and powerful woman. Euripides' play was already capable of concealing this feeling; it has been said that his feminism was rare in this context, and that he placed Medea's pain as much before us as her cruelty. Thomas Corneille's libretto takes this approach even further, although masking it somewhat. Treated at a time when "metoo" has passed, it takes on this sensitive relief.

In popular discourse, we used to say that a man owes his career to his first wife and his second wife to his career. But it no longer carries with it the tragedy that Euripides did not avoid, of women's destiny in the magnificent but implacable birth of patriarchy. It takes note of a truth, which nowadays, in a new equivalence of the sexes, is transferred to many other possibilities. Women are no longer left to the fate of Greek laws when they are no longer loved. To proclaim her power, she no longer needs to summon the underworld and blood. Nor the extreme madness of sacrificing what she has, to eternalise what she is, in the hatred of the man to whom she has given herself, to whom she has given, through murder already, the keys to his power. That's why there's a particular malice, welcome and talented, in this look at the abandoned, monstrous woman of the past.

Everything works together. William Christie steers this ship and his excellent orchestra with precision, and we feel his impetus. Lea Desandre performs before us this prodigious metamorphosis in which we accompany her, suspended. A loving, slightly self-effacing woman whose voice barely rises and whose hands crossed over her waist give her a borrowed air, she tries right up to the last moment to make her inconstant man come back to her. She fluctuates between love and hate for a long time, watching for the sign when everything changes, then in an instant she becomes this definitive tigress, wild and magnificent. Her voice will embody her, without being strong, filling the space with its sensual, almost raucous accents. Her choreography won't let us go, and we'll accompany her in this ferocious surge to the very last drop. We'll follow the raging accents of her hatred, demanding absolute disaster. She takes us along like the flute player leading the town to disaster, and we follow her without fear, even when the children disappear. Her appalling logic has overtaken us.

M.A. Charpentier's music achieves a kind of prodigy in carrying Thomas Corneille's libretto happily from start to finish, as if this song were natural to it, that it could only be said in this way by singing it. There is never a hint of the artifice or boredom that can be found in so many operas; each phrase is held in place, each sentence is held in the necessary order, each word is in a place where you feel it belongs. And the notes put it there, with a rare happiness. Reynoud Van Mechelen's tenor voice is perfectly suited to the character of Jason, a slightly ridiculous hero who explains from the start how happy he would be if he were less loved. The bass of Creon, played by Laurent Naouri, is solid and remarkable, and his final tirade is moving if also laughable. Ana Viera Leite's Créuse is superbly natural, and the idea of making her look like Marilyn, and all the ghosts too, is a clever trick by costume designer Bunny Christie.

We don't always understand the reasons behind David McVicar's direction, which plunges the drama into the Second World War, with the men in American and British uniforms, but that doesn't really matter. The sets and choreography are often formidable in their inventiveness and beauty. From the entry of the aeroplane onto the stage, mocking the efforts of the pretender Oronte to celebrate his flame (an excellent performance by Gordon Bintner). From the ballet of ghosts bewitching Creon's soldiers in subway dress, to the extraordinary dance of the chtonian creatures rising from the earth to cause chaos. It's all, it has to be said, sublime. All of which adds to the not-so-secret pleasure derived from this opera's highly original treatment of drama. This is an opera that we discover to be an almost continuous masterpiece, and for which we are grateful to William Christie for having unearthed and renewed it, so much would have been lost if we had ignored it.