By David Gregson
Monday, January 31, 2011
When Long Beach Opera first announced that it was planning a United States premiere of Cherubini’s "Medea," I was dumbfounded. Had they not heard of Callas in Dallas (1958) or of Eileen Farrell in San Francisco Opera’s "Medea" (1958-1959)? This SFO production had even played for one night at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where I made a pilgrimage from San Diego to see it. I was 17 at the time, a sophomore at La Jolla High School, and the trek to Los Angeles, not to mention an overnight stay at the Biltmore Hotel, was a big deal for me.
I was thrilled by Farrell in the role, but I was also disappointed not to have seen Callas instead. I had heard her in "Lucia" at the old Metropolitan Opera house in New York several years earlier. I was only a ninth grader, and because of Callas, I had fallen in love with opera.
In any event, Long Beach Opera is too modest in calling this "Medea", as they do now, the "US premiere of original version." It’s in fact the world premiere of a newly conceived musical theater piece, and it’s unique in every way. It certainly could never be exactly duplicated. It was conceived by Andreas Mitisek, the company’s charming presiding genius, and involves some fascinating collaborative efforts, especially those involving the prima donna of the piece, multi-talented soprano Suzan Hanson. With Mitisek, Hanson helped devise an English translation, all of it ingeniously stitched together in part from the libretto of the original French “Médée” (1797). Hanson and Mitisek also reworked passages from playwright Pierre Corneille’s 1635 stage tragedy of the same name, as well as dialogue from the Greek tragedy itself, Euripides’ “Medea.” All of this makes the LBO "Medea" distinctly different than the Italian grand opera version Callas and Farrell sang.
Cherubini’s piece, much admired in its time, was an "opéra-comique," that is to say an opera with spoken passages instead of sung recitative. Don’t think French, though. Think Beethoven’s "Fidelio" — and Mitisek certainly thought this way also, actually adding a spoken melodrama (or voice over) to Cherubini’s orchestral interlude from Act Three of the original score. Mitisek also eliminated Cherubini’s original grand musical choruses while at the same time reinstating something very like an actual "Greek chorus" — particularly in the aforementioned melodrama that relates the terrible death of Dirce, Jason’s bride-not-to-be. In Greek tragedy (where violence was not permitted on the stage), "Greek messengers" would rush on stage to fill us in on sights too terrible for us to see. But the messenger’s bad news in Mitisek’s "Medea" is delivered by a Greek chorus of women — and it feels very Euripidean indeed!
If all this were not unusual enough, Mitisek chose to stage the work in an abandoned Long Beach warehouse. A large raised platform was erected dead center in the dimly lighted building, and the audience was seated around it in (rather uncomfortable) chairs in a 360 degree sweep. The sized down Beethovenian orchestra was ensconced in one of the warehouse corners — which meant it was actually seated behind many of the spectators. In my case, the orchestral sounds were coming from behind my head (into my left ear, mostly) and the singing and speaking was coming from in front of me. I don’t believe I have ever encountered this sort of thing anywhere at any time in my life. But, in the past, Long Beach Opera has repeatedly come up with startling solutions to the problem of where to put the orchestra. I recall it being virtually suspended above the stage several years ago. In any case, Mitisek commanded a brisk reading of the score while strategically placed TV monitors helped keep singers and musicians in sync.
So Mitisek is the "concept/stage director and set/lighting designer and conductor" and has created a new performing version of Cherubini’s "Medea." No doubt Suzan Hanson is not the only person who contributed to the creation and ultimate success of this undertaking. In the final analysis, this is a superb ensemble effort involving some wonderful performances by LBO’s most talented people: tenor Ryan MacPherson (Jason), baritone Roberto Gomez (King Creon), soprano Ani Maldjian (Dirce), mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell (Neris), soprano Ariel Pisturino (Woman One), and mezzo-soprano Diana Tash (Woman Two). Maldjian and Southwell had some fabulous vocal moments, and Hanson was superb throughout. There were no weak singers. The excellent costume designer is Christine Cover Ferro and fine sound design was devised by Bob Christian.
I had a few problems with this show, however. In an effort to make certain every member of the audience circle gets a moment or two of seeing and hearing the performers face on, Mitisek has the players constantly delivering north, west, east and south, but very seldom to each other. This reduces the dramatic impact considerably. At the same time, it puts the balance between voices and orchestra in a constant state of change from any single perspective. The noble effort at audience democracy kept me thinking of W.S. Gilbert’s line, "When everybody’s somebody, no one’s anybody."
I also did not care for the character of Jason’s intended bride becoming a smoking boozing floozy and for her prenuptial sexual fling with the groom. These characterizations seemed to me to be too far removed from the mythological truth, as it were. They were probably truly in love. Here their trashy behavior together reduces their heroic if never exactly admirable stature.
And while Suzan Hanson is in every way a remarkable artist, she is too likable and genuinely feminine to summon up the awesome, terrifying de-sexed witch who burns her rival with poisoned dresses and murders her two children. Callas had success with this piece because she could be genuinely scary when she chose to. You can hear it on the live recordings (especially the hair-raising one made in Dallas just after Callas had been fired from the Met!) Callas played a risky business, took big artistic chances, and the total effect was enhanced by her public notoriety. Divas like this inspire awe. In Hanson’s case, we get a really excellent, thoughtful, superbly vocalized performance — not a memorably risky, demented one. And there is no shame in this at all. Even Eileen Farrell could not take the role to the edge the way Callas did (although she certainly tried!), and when Callas made her semi-disastrous debut as a non-singing actress in Pasolini’s film of "Medea," we saw a true diva defanged and deprived of her most powerful asset — her voice.
With this admirable and inventive effort, Long Beach Opera continues to be the one of Southern California’s most powerful cultural assets.