TheaterMania Logo
Home link

Review: A Messy Divorce Plays Out in Public in Medea at the Metropolitan Opera

Sondra Radvanovsky bewitches the audience in the title role.

Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Luigi Cherubini's Medea, directed by David McVicar, at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera)

Sometimes, you just want to see your enemies weep. In that way, we can all relate to Medea, the mythical sorceress of Colchis and the protagonist (villain?) of Luigi Cherubini's Medea, which has just opened the Metropolitan Opera's 2022-23 season in exquisite style. Of course, few of us will go as far as Medea in exacting revenge. Curses to the heavens, poisoned accessories, an extremely late-term abortion — nothing is off the table for her. And that's what makes this opera so horrifying and watchable.

The music helps too: Cherubini's score is a bridge between the formality of the Classical period and the unbridled passion of the Romantic. We know we're in for a dark and stormy night from the opening bars of the overture, which Carlo Rizzi conducts with the force of a conquering general.

Italian by birth, Cherubini spent most of his life in France (like Medea, he was also an immigrant), collaborating with librettist François-Benoît Hoffman on the original French version of Médée, which premiered in 1797. Carlo Zangarini subsequently created the Italian translation now appearing at the Met (remarkably, this is the first time Medea has ever been performed at the world's greatest opera house). The Italian version gained prominence in the 20th century in large part due to the performances of Maria Callas, the closest thing opera ever had to a genuine sorceress — until now.

Sondra Radvanovsky plays Medea, and Matthew Polenzani plays Giasone in Luigi Cherubini's Medea, directed by David McVicar, at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera)

As she did in Norma, Sondra Radvanovsky casts an operatic spell with her must-see portrayal of Medea, scorned first wife of Giasone (Matthew Polenzani with a cool swagger that seems to mask sheer panic). With her help he brought the golden fleece back to Greece, along with a band of obnoxious argonauts (this section of the chorus exudes a real bros-before-hos vibe that spells trouble for anyone who might attempt marriage with the over-the-hill adventurer). The unlucky girl is Glauce (Janai Brugger), daughter of King Creonte (Michele Pertusi, with the steady baritone and slightly weary manner of a late Habsburg). Glauce is also a ladder for Giasone's ambition. A swashbuckling hero of the people, he's the Johnny Depp of Corinth — but does that make Medea the Amber Heard?

Radvanovsky is both scarier and more sympathetic than the Aquaman actress: When she slinks through the shadows stage right, like a spider at the rehearsal dinner, we understand completely that the whole town is against her. We root for this underdog, the founding member of the first wives club. As she begins to plot her deadly revenge, it's hard to abandon her completely, even as she seems to undergo demonic possession, the skeletal grin of death overtaking her face. She knows that they call her a foreign witch, so why not play the part with gusto? Add to that a voice that could knock flat a Spartan army and you have a Medea to haunt your nightmares. When she sings of her rabbia infernale we know that there's nowhere to hide — not even in the family circle.

Medea (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Neris (Ekaterina Gubanova) perform the wedding scene in Medea at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera)

As the faithful servant Neris, Ekaterina Gubanova attempts to bring her boil to a simmer with a mellow rendition of "Solo un pianto." Ethereally beautiful, it nevertheless fails to hold our full attention. Even Medea's mind seems to wander as she rudely pokes through her chest of horrors mid-aria.

That's bad news for Glauce. Typically an offstage character, the princess of Corinth is given a fair hearing with a cheerful opening scene depicting her dress fitting. Exhibiting a lovely soprano, she radiates girlish giddiness, but that quickly darkens to fear of Medea. No spoiled princess, we immediately recognize her as a victim — as innocent as Medea doomed sons (Axel and Magnus Newville, to whom you want to scream, run!).

Magnus Newville, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Axel Newville appear in Luigi Cherubini's Medea, directed by David McVicar, at the Metropolitan Opera.
(© Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera)

Like he's directing a horror film, David McVicar (who also designed the set) places a slanted mirror upstage so that we see multiple angles of carnage. He also delivers a theatrical split-screen with Medea seething in the foreground as her husband marries another woman upstage. This scene is later echoed in Act III, with Medea luxuriating in Glauce's agony. Doey Lüthi's costumes place the action in a fantastical 19th century decorated with frock coats and vats of eyeliner. S. Kathy Tucker's projections represent the most technically impressive design element, conjuring the fires of hell onstage.

All of it makes for a brilliant night at the opera starring an angry woman with a voice for the ages. This is the kind of finely crafted madness that keeps us coming back to the Met.