Tainted Ladies: Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Luigi Cherubini’s Medea at Glimmerglass Festival 2011

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Carmen

Music by Georges Bizet
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

Cast:
Carmen, mezzo-soprano, Ginger Costa-Jackson; Don José, tenor, Adam Diegel; Michaëla, soprano, Anya Matanovič; Escamillo, baritone, Michael Todd-Simpson.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus, David Angus, conductor.
Director, Anne Bogart; Sets & Costumes, James Schuette; Lighting, Robert Wierzel; Choreographer, Barney O’Hanlon.

Medea
Music by Luigi Cherubini
Libretto by François-Benoît Hoffmann, Italian version by Carlo Zangarini

Cast:
Medea, soprano, Alexandra Deshorties; Jason, tenor, Jeffrey Gwaltney; Glauce, soprano, Jessica Stavros; Creon, bass-baritone, David Pittsinger; Neris,mezzo- soprano, Sarah Larsen.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Daniele Rustioni, conductor.
Director, Michael Barker-Caven; Sets & Costumes, Joe Vaněk; Lighting, Robert Wierzel.

 

Yesterday – would you believe it? – I heard Bizet’s masterpiece for the twentieth time. Once more I attended with the same gentle     reverence; once again, I did not run away. This triumph over my impatience surprises me.  How such a work completes one! Through it one almost becomes a “masterpiece” oneself – And, as a matter of fact, each time I heard Carmen it seemed to me that I was more of a philosopher, a better philosopher than at other times.  I became so forbearing, so happy, so Indian, so settled….Bizet’s music seems to me perfect. It comes forward lightly, gracefully, stylishly.  It is lovable.  It does not sweat.

                                Friedrich Nietzsche – The Case of Wagner, (Leipzig, 1888).

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen) and Adam Diegel (Don José). Photo Julieta Cervantes).

 Nietzsche was, of course, ironically extolling Carmen at the expense of his erstwhile mentor-idol-friend, Richard Wagner.  Even though Wagner had been dead for five years, Nietzsche had great fun zinging Wagner’s family, followers, and the entire Bayreuth phenomenon. Yet, his comment that “it does not sweat” ultimately lingers in one’s judgment of Bizet’s masterpiece. Nietzsche would have had little to comment on the subject matter of this opera, nor on the moral turpitude to which the opera’s male hero falls.  Nietzsche might have even identified with Don José in his own affair with the free thinking and flamboyant psychoanalyst, Lou Andreas-Salomé. With the philosopher’s mother and sister holding him in check, he never had the opportunity to be so lustily ruined by his own Carmen.

What, then, of Medea? Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy, criticized Euripides’s Medea as typical of a culture guilty of the “death of tragedy” by tacking on uplifting, and even “happy” endings.  However, Luigi Cherubini’s late eighteenth-century setting, with libretto by Françios-Benoît Hoffmann, the grim tale of a mother’s filicide remains unmitigated.  Nietzsche, I think, would have been pleased.

While the subjects of both Carmen and Medea are their eponymous anti-heroines, painted alike as unredeemable stereotypes borne of male engendered projections of fear and desire, the musical universes they inhabit are so wildly and widely different.  Carmen is an opéra-comique supreme:  its immediacy of melodic and harmonic appeal are life-lasting and enduring. Anyone can follow the musical “numbers” in their tripartite or strophic forms.  Yet, under the winning simple exteriors, Bizet’s constructive deftness reveals a profound musical sophistication and architectural skill.  It wasn’t the lack of memorable music that made Carmen’s première at Camille du Locle’s Paris Opéra-Comique so controversial.  Instead, it was the disturbing moral and sexual tension that underlies Carmen, her almost predatory domination of her lover, and the clear trope of her feral nature to that of a savage bull en route to a ritualized slaughter.

Carmen is an alpha female by dint of her sexual prowess and seductive force, the way strong women could only be perceived in nineteenth-century Europe. Her sexuality would appear loathsome if it weren’t for Don José’s utter fecklessness and helplessness.  By making Don José contemptible as a helpless victim to Carmen’s near vampiric allure, and demonstrating her succeess in undoing a soldier and a devoted son, Bizet never succeeds in demonization his heroine.  Her only salvation, in the end, is her faith in the occult which has predicted her end.  Don José’s fate is that of a man ruled by his gonads.

Theatre director Anne Bogart, who is currently the head of Columbia University’s Directing Program, has written that her production here at Glimmerglass centered around the “phenomenon of bullfighting” with the atmosphere and frisson of Orson Welles’s noir film Touch of Evil. Certainly one can see how sultry mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson’s character of Carmen was influenced by Marlene Dietrich’s portrayal of the gypsy Tanya in that film.  James Schuette’s military costumes for the guards convey the look, perhaps, of France’s occupation of Algiers in the 1940s:  another period in which a social order attempted to “tame” a native, non-conforming culture.  There is considerable challenge in balancing disparate visual and cultural symbols:  street urchins, military ceremonies, cigarette workers, gypsies, smugglers, innkeepers, orange sellers and bull fighters.  Ms. Bogart divides and conquers such distracting diversity. For example, her placement of the children in a line, downstage, and singing directly to the audience, tearing the fourth wall down as it were, was a nice touch.  The way the guards seem always aligned in posture and stage placement in contrast with the sprawl of Carmen and the characters of her world, was another brilliant directorial stroke.

Ms. Bogart’s most important work, however, is revealed in the conception of the opera’s two main characters.  Ms. Costa-Jackson’s Carmen is not portrayed as the insuperable sexual juggernaut of, say, Anna Caterina Antonacci in Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden production. Rather, Ms. Costa-Jackson, who is a petite beauty, imparts her concupiscent power through her velvety dusky mezzo voice.  Thus, her Carmen is more outwardly vulnerable, and her sensuality is never ostentatious.  It was wonderful to hear the Seguidille with such a dark and provocative color. Tenor Adam Diegel, Don José, who appeared here last year as Cavaradossi in Tosca, and this year in the Met’s Das Rheingold, has a clear, classically poised voice, full of power, yet avoids the kind of grandstanding that some might expect.  His La fleur que tu m’avais jetée omitting the nec plus ultra style that characterizes, say Jonas Kaufmann’s approach in the aforementioned Zambello production, was beautiful and convincing. However, Ms. Bogart allows Mr. Diegel’s Don José to retain a nobility and stalwartness that seems to run counter to his character’s moral disintegration.  All in all, Don José struck me as too rosy-eyed and emotionally balanced.  His murder of Carmen seemed solely to accommodate her fateful request – his jealousy of others, his unrequited love, his humiliation and self-loathing, stoically borne in his countenance, never seem to count in the end. I would have hoped that Ms. Bogart strove to unravel Mr. Diegel’s character more.

As the third point in a triangle, Escamillo’s role is extremely important, although Bizet imparts little music on the toreador. Charismatic former professional football fullback turned bass-baritone, Keith Miller, was highly anticipated in this role, but withdrew after one performance due to allergies.  His replacement, a former Glimmerglass Young Artist, Michael Todd Simpson, a lighter voiced baritone, has performed Escamillo in Australia and Taiwan and was excellent both musically and dramatically. Especially noteworthy was soprano Anya Matanovič’s performance as Don José’s ardent and loyal Michaëla.  Ms. Bogart’s Carmen was innovative in its economy and clarity of vision while not indulging in a possibly more disorienting, overthought modernist staging.  The fact that Carmen can be so successfully mounted without epical trappings bodes well for Glimmerglass’s plans for a production  of Aida next summer.

 ***

While Carmen’s desires are a complicated affair, and her relationship with Don José symbolic of the subjugation of the free and sensual by a male-dominated society, Cherubini’s anti-heroine and sorceress Medea is a far richer character. Consumed by hatred of her husband Jason and his treachery in choosing another woman, yet bound by a mother’s love of her sons, her psychological odyssey from mother to murderess is spine-tingling.  The role of Medea, already an accomplice with Jason to murderous acts before the events of Cherubini’s setting, embraces the logic of filicide, persuades us to sympathize with her husband-hating ruminations, and poses a challenge for librettist, composer, and stage director.

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was born in Italy but spent most of his life in France.  Médée premiered in 1797, but became Medea when it was revised and translated to Italian in 1802. The work traveled to Germany in 1855 in a version by Franz Lachner. Irish director Michael Barker-Craven has chosen Carlo Zangarini’s popular 1909 Italian re-translation of the Lachner version for Glimmerglass.  This is appropriate since Zangarini’s version was used in the famous 1953 revival of the work with Maria Callas.

Alexandra Deshorties (Medea) and the Argonauts. Photo Julieta Cervantes.

Médée/Medea is a fascinating and innovative work, defying any clear allegiance to one national or historical style.  To my ears, this work sounds like a conflation of Gluck and Mozart and some foreshadowing of Weber, with its simple eighteenth-century aria structures juxtaposed with extraordinary and complex monologues.  Harmonically it can be chaste and Augustan in one scene, and dissonant, chromatic, and blatantly Romantic in another.

Perhaps the deftest of Cherubini’s touches is the way he consistently differentiates groups of characters by their harmonic language. Creon, Jason, Glauce and the handmaidens occupy a universe of diatonic simplicity and symmetric structures.  In complete contrast, Medea’s melodic, textural, harmonic and formal elements are dark, chromatic, discursive, encompassing a demanding vocal range.  Even when reference is made of Medea by Creon and his clan, clouds magically form over their phrases. Neris stands alone inhabiting neither group (more of this later).  Mr. Barker-Craven understood this musical structure and emphasized the two contrasting tonal worlds through staging, gesture and costume.

At the very beginning of the opera, when the overture reaches its final agitated and harmonically aggressive recapitulation, and before the actual curtain rises, Medea’s children are seen downstage in their bedroom – an effective directorial gesture which links the fate of these boys to the music’s unsettled harmonic rhythm.  Princess Glauce, daughter of Creon, is betrothed to Jason who has left his wife Medea.  Glauce and her handmaidens, clad in wedding-day white, sing optimistically and insouciantly in triadic bliss, in anticipation of the nuptials.  However, when Glauce momentarily expresses her anxiety about Medea’s jealousy (after all, Medea is a sorceress and follower of Hecate), a groaning chromaticism pervades the harmony with ensuing instrumental trembling.  Glauce was performed today by Jessica Stavros, a Young Artist Program stand-in for the ailing Wendy Bryn Harmer. Her voice was expressive and rich throughout most of her range; her highs, though, were a bit pinched.  Bass-baritone David Pittsinger, as Creon, was an outstanding performer.  His magisterial and rich vocal color was matched by his statuesque bearing as he blessed the pair in slow-moving and regal tonic-dominant harmonies.  When Medea appears, she is accompanied on stage by two pantomime doppelgängers (or, would that be “triple-gängers” or “double-doppelgängers”?). Her arms gyrate in some sort of occult ritualized gesture, and her doppelgangers follow suit and then seem to disappear in a vapor from stage.  Unexpected augmented chords come and go, vitiating Creon’s diatonically stolid resolution.  This might be the only opera in which aberrant harmonies become reified demons.  Much of the magic rested on the conductor, Daniele Rustioni, in underscoring these details. Rustioni, while exhibiting a certain flamboyance of gesture on the podium, nonetheless carried the work with complete conviction and attention to detail.  He ensured that Cherubini’s harmonic interplay would be clearly understood.

Soprano Alexandra Deshorties, who is cast in the almost impossibly difficult role of Medea, was amazing, if not frighteningly intense.  She reminded me of Catherine Malfitano in the way a singer and her role can coalesce and suspend us, rapt, for every moment she appears on stage. Cherubini is merciless in his demands for this voice, but Ms. Deshorties commanded all.  Each of her extended monologues is really a “mad scene,” in which she excoriates Jason, father of her children, her former ally, lover and  accomplice.  In Act II, to the accompaniment of bassoon and strings, Medea realizes that killing Glauce is not enough to punish Jason, but to be effective, she must stop his lineage.  “My children, my treasures – I must leave you  … A mother’s tears.” Jason was to be sung by tenor Jason Collins, but due to injury he left mid season.  In his place, as in the substitution for Glauce was Young Artist, Jeffrey Gwaltney.  He has an attractive voice, and his somewhat soft delineation of Jason was appropriately “weaker” than the wraith-like quality of Ms. Deshorties role.

Joe Vaněk’s costumes carefully depicted Medea and her spirit minions in dark blue, in contrast to the whites and royal purple.  So, when the final act begins, and the entire set in dominated in blue, we know that Medea’s malevolence has saturated what we are now to behold and hear. The huge moon, painted on the backdrop, becomes blood red.   Medea, for the first time clad in red, asks the gods for strength to commit murder as she cries “Gods, come to me.”  Then, in her throbbing, climactic monologue, “A savage grief wracks my heart…,” the torture of her ambivalence is palpable in the twisted, detached turns of the music.  When she hears of Glauce’s death, an act she passively causes by giving her rival a poisoned crown, she finally commits herself to the unthinkable:  she cries to Jason, as he grieves Glauce, “Reserve your tears for them!” And so, like an ancient mythic precursor of Magda Goebbels, she acts.  It is a jaw-dropping conclusion, and, like Strauss’s operatic shockers ,Elektra and Salome, beg the question of how audiences can “enjoy” such sordid tales.  Deshorties almost persuades us that Medea’s actions are inexorable and that her agony should draw empathy. Such was the virtuosity of her devastated portrayal.  In an opera of symbolic extremes, only one character, Medea’s servant, Neris, is the compassionate observer.  As such, Neris is our Greek chorus, and lends genuine, heartfelt sympathy to Medea’s tragic plight. Neris’s plaintive aria, Solo un pianto, is a treasure, and soprano Sarah Larsen’s interpretation was soulfully exquisite.

For this first “Glimmerglass Festival,” Medea seems programmatically overwhelmed by the familiar Carmen and the tunefulness of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, which, with Deborah Voigt and Rod Gilfry, was a big box office draw.  Much credit must be given to Francesca Zambello in giving young  Michael Barker-Caven’s talents free reign.  While Medea is an unsettling work, Alexandra Deshorties’s riveting performance and Daniele Rustioni’s vivid direction has made this a work that will provoke and haunt an audience long after seen and heard.

Medea (Alexandra Deshorties) in Lethal Doppelgänger mode. Photo Julieta Cervantes.

Seth Lachterman

About Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hillsdale, New York, which abuts the Berkshires in Massachusetts. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

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