French baroque opera is finally, belatedly, establishing a foothold on English soil, and a good thing it is. First came Rameau – English National Opera had a success with Castor and Pollux and Glyndebourne is about to do Hippolyte et Aricie. Now, from a generation before Rameau, comes Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea. It can’t be long before someone tackles Lully, the originator of the five-act tragédie en musique.
More than any other of its type, Medea depends on the histrionic and musical eloquence of the singer in the title role, and here ENO can count itself blessed. It was Sarah Connolly who suggested Charpentier to the management, and there is no mezzo-soprano today better equipped to impersonate his monster-mother from Greek mythology. Connolly’s refined timbre and sure musical instincts are the ideal medium for Charpentier’s highly charged but chaste idiom. Thanks to her skill at harmonising the human qualities of the part in the first two acts with its heinous qualities in the last two, Connolly enjoys a deserved triumph.
She is supported by an orchestra that sounds more naturally attuned to baroque style than the imported period bands proliferating elsewhere. That’s not just because ENO’s ensemble has mastered the instruments, but also because it knows how to follow singers. Under Christian Curnyn, the sound blossoms in the tricky Coliseum acoustic, with ravishing recorder accompaniments.
David McVicar’s production, designed by Bunny Christie and choreographed by Lynne Page, is another of his empty spectacles. Eschewing the wigs and frocks of French baroque tradition, McVicar turns the action into a 1940s film scenario dramatising the lives of wartime military personnel. Creon (Brindley Sherratt, outstanding) is an army commanding officer, Orontes (Roderick Williams, excellent) an air force squadron leader, while Jason (Jeffrey Francis, stylish but long past his best) sports a naval officer’s uniform.
The update produces some fun choreography in the first two acts but fails to illuminate the drama or explain the presence of blonde pin-up Creusa (Katherine Manley, promising). The final two acts descend into grand-operatic hubris: McVicar can’t find a way of relating his concept to Medea’s sorcery, the most vital component in the story, and the climax falls flat.