Chicago Opera Theater’s Medea-themed, baroque- opera, hit- parade continues in Millennium Park, with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1693 five-act triumph “Medea.” It’s the hump show between last year’s similarly-plotted “Giasone” by Cavalli and next season’s “Teseo” (where Medea is also a central character) by Handel.
Nearly three hours and performed in French with English supertitles, this tour de force, staged by costume designer James Darrah with a minimal intensity to balance the grandeur of a sumptuous score, is solid stagecraft. Every emotion is concentrated before being unleashed on the Harris Theater. Thomas Corneille’s libretto enlarges the ancient Greek legend by adding the doomed Prince Oronte of Argos, a suitor for Creuse, the Princess of Corinth, who, with fatal results, is also being wooed by the disloyal Jason, Medea’s lover and the beneficiary of the sorceress’ most lethal magic. That should have been a warning not to cross her but never mind. Here four is not as easily divided by two as math desires.
Nothing good can come of this love quadrangle–and only two are left at the end. By then, the audience has been enthralled with Charpentier’s finest arias, most of which necessarily go to Anna Stephany’s all-commanding Medea. Her stunning soprano combines dignity and anguish as she moves from astonishment–that sacrificing her family (including murdering her father) so Jason could win the Golden Fleece has only triggered betrayal–to a fury at his abandonment of her and her children (Nation Hendrickson and Catherine Stegemann) that, of course, leads to the classical world’s most terrible infanticide.
Colin Ainsworth’s tall and comely Jason helps to explain her loss and envy, his glorious tenor sealing the deal as he cruelly and foolishly reminds Medea of lost love in the midst of his calculating opportunism. Micaela Oeste’s very conflicted Princess Creuse has more texture and heart as she confronts two suitors while ignoring the angry witch in her vicinity. Paul LaRosa’s Oronte, the noblest of the characters, brings a kind of honor to his persistent courtship of Creuse, doomed as it is. In the truncated role of Creon, Evan Boyer piteously contrasts his weaker secular authority against the infernal powers at Medea’s disposal.
The superb earth-toned ensemble function effectively—and ultimately emotionally–as a very supple Chorus, conveying Corinth’s astonishment as this dark soap opera works out its inevitable tragedies (though there’s some distracting and fussy business involving objects enclosed in glass cases and orange ribbons connecting the Princess to her people).
Christian Curnyn, a rising star in the early-music constellation, conducts the superb Baroque Band, a period-instrument orchestra of impeccable quality, in a score that abounds with sensuous instrumental interludes. The cold and ruined set by Francois-Pierre Couture may be dark and dour but the sounds you’ll hear will transport you to Versailles and make you feel like a king.
Next up at Chicago Opera Theater, the final offering of the 2011 season, is “He/She,” a double bill of Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” and Janacek’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared.” This comparatively short offering will be performed at the Harris Theater beginning May 7. For more information on this show, please visit the Theatre In Chicago Medea page.