As it has since 1883, the Metropolitan Opera opened a new season last night. On the stage was Medea, the opera by Luigi Cherubini. In the title role was Sondra Radvanovsky, the veteran American soprano. She had a triumph—another one.
Never before had the Met staged Medea. Most of us think of it as a Callas vehicle. Though the opera was premiered in 1797, it was Callas, in the twentieth century, who put it on the map, for us moderns.
What is the best-known fact about Cherubini? Probably this: that Beethoven admired him, greatly, which is an extraordinary commendation.
Cherubini was an Italian who had a Parisian career. Medea premiered in French, as Médée. Three years ago, the Salzburg Festival staged it, in French. (For my comments, go here.) The Met gave us an Italian Medea.
Sondra Radvanovsky was sovereign. As they said about the late Queen Elizabeth II: she never put a foot wrong. The voice is a bit frayed and worn now. This mattered not at all. Indeed, it may have added to the overall pathos. Radvanovsky has formidable cutting power. At the same time, she has a formidable ability to sing high and soft. She can play with a phrase, toy with it; she can also scald.
She sang “clean,” and Classical clean. She was remarkably precise. Moreover, she took advantage of the Italian language, making her diction work for her, musically and dramatically.
Acting with her voice, her face, and her body, she was arresting. She succeeded in making Medea both pitiable and horrifying. Is the character murderous? She is. She is also scorned and nuts.
Presiding in the pit was Carlo Rizzi, the veteran Italian conductor (who spent time at the Welsh National Opera and, famously, learned Welsh). He knew the score cold—and hot—and communicated this knowledge skillfully. The opera had a feeling of solidity. It was compact, economical—economical, yes, but slighting no emotion. Rizzi conducted with refinement, and the orchestra responded with refinement.
The storm they whipped up at the beginning of Act III was electric.
Cherubini gives woodwinds almost concerto-like stretches. The Met players rose to the occasions. And the stability of the principal French horn was to be appreciated.
Also to be appreciated—very much so—was the Met chorus. They are so routinely excellent, they can be taken for granted, which would be unjust.
In the role of Mirto Picchi was Matthew Polenzani, the veteran American tenor. (Just kidding: Picchi was Callas’s tenor partner, in Medea. The character is Giasone, or Jason.) Over the years, some people have worried that Polenzani would try to stretch his gorgeous lyric voice too far—would try to make it too big. Polenzani was plenty loud last night. But he did not strain.
Let me now ask a general question: should Medea be staged in a smaller house? Yes—but that could be said of many operas, staged at the Met (and successfully).
Portraying Glauce was a second American soprano, Janai Brugger—who made an impression at the Met in 2016, singing in Rossini’s William Tell (which has an overture). In Medea, she sang securely and endearingly.
Michele Pertusi was our king, Creonte, who is also the father of Glauce. This Italian bass made his Met debut in 1997, and I believe I first reviewed him ten years later (here). As Creonte, he was fatherly, kingly—authoritative. Just what the doctor ordered.
Ekaterina Gubanova, I first reviewed in 2007, too. She had sung in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. (“A rich, throbbing voice,” I said.) Last night, she was Neris, the companion of Medea. I have never known this Russian mezzo to disappoint. As Neris, she displayed many of her gifts, including correct intonation, finding the center of the note. Gubanova “hugs the line”—the musical line—in the fashion of Marilyn Horne and other mezzos we could name.
The production was in the hands of David McVicar, the Scottish director, who has become something like a house director for the Met. I think we are entitled to make an adjective out of his name, and to say that his Medea is McVicaresque: grand, angular, moody. Crucially, it serves the opera—the score, the libretto, and the story—rather than itself. At the back of the stage, much of the time, is a huge mirror, on a slant—very effective.
On a huge screen, or curtain, or scrim, is an image of Medea. We see it before the opera, during intermission, and so on. It is a haunting and fitting image. After a while, I thought I recognized the face. And it dawned on me: this woman looks rather like the Statue of Liberty.
Speaking of things American, the evening began with the playing of the national anthem, as a Met opening night traditionally does. The audience sings along. Did anyone go up for the high B flat near the end? Yes, a woman in my vicinity did, and it was lovely.
For years, like other critics, I reviewed Sondra Radvanovsky. She was often very good; other nights, she was not. That is musical life, athletic life, etc. But several years ago—when she was singing the Three Queens (Donizetti) at the Met—I felt she had crossed a threshold: into greatness, into a pantheon. “This is a singer—an opera performer—for the ages,” I thought.
Last night only bolstered this judgment. All of us present were lucky to be there.