Motherhood and Murder: Cherubini's 'Medea'

From the Teatro Regio in Turin

THE HIT SINGLE

The biggest hit in Medea comes from one of its most tender moments. It's in Act One, when Medea tries to win Jason back by singing "Dei tuoi figli la madre" — "You see the mother of your children." In Turin, it was sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci.

The B Side

One of the opera's most beautiful numbers is often overlooked amidst the dramatic fireworks. In the second act, Medea's loyal servant Neris sympathizes with her mistress in the moving aria "Solo un pianto" — "Only to weep." Contralto Sara Mingardo sang the role in Turin.

Giuseppe Filianoti and Maria Caterina Antonacci

Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti is Jason, with soprano Maria Caterina Antonacci as the title character, in Cherubini's Medea from Turin. Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino hide caption

itoggle caption Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino

It's no secret that movie and television audiences have a taste for sensational dramas, driven by raw passion and brutal violence. And, truth be told, audiences in the rarified atmosphere of the opera house have more or less the same predilections.

Somehow, opera has developed a reputation as a cultivated, highbrow sort of entertainment. Yet a close look at what goes on in a typical opera might make you wonder how that reputation arose — and the story told by Luigi Cherubini's Medea is a prime example.

The drama's title character is a notorious figure from Greek mythology, a sorceress whose main claim to fame is the event that brings down the curtain on Cherubini's opera: She murders her own children. And that's only the last part of her story. Leading up to that, she killed her brother. Then, as Medea's father was chasing her out of town, she dismembered the brother's corpse and scattered the pieces behind her as she fled, knowing that dad would have to delay his pursuit to give each body part a proper burial!

So it's not surprising that of all the music Cherubini wrote, in a distinguished career lasting more than 60 years, it's Medea for which he's best remembered. It was written in 1797, late in the decade of the French Revolution.

By at least one count, the revolutionary years saw some 2000 new theatrical productions in France. Of all those, Medea is the only opera that is still heard regularly in today's theaters. And the gruesome story isn't the only reason for its continuing success; Cherubini's musical score is as daring as the drama itself, featuring some of the most innovative and expressive music in any opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Cherubini's masterpiece from the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. Anna Caterina Antonacci takes on the challenging title role — a task made even more daunting by the role's close association with the great soprano Maria Callas. Also starring is tenor Giuseppe Filianoti as Jason, the famous Argonaut who fathered Medea's ill-fated sons.

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The Story of 'Medea'

Cinzia Forte as Glauce

Princess Glauce (Cinzia Forte, left) ponders her upcoming marriage to Jason in Act One of Medea, from Turin. Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino hide caption

itoggle caption Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino
Anna Caterina Antonacci as Medea

Angry and despondent after Jason's rejection, Medea (Anna Caterina Antonacci) responds by murdering their two children. Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino hide caption

itoggle caption Ramella&Giannese/Teatro Regio di Torino

WHO'S WHO?

  • Anna Caterina Antonacci .... Medea
  • Giuseppe Filianoti ............... Jason
  • Cinzia Forte ....................... Glauce
  • Sara Mingardo .................... Neris
  • Giovanni Battista Parodi ... Creon
  • Teatro Regio Orchestra and Chorus
  • Evelino Pido, conductor

The libretto for Cherubini's Medea was written by Francois Benoit Hoffman, and has roots in the classic play by Euripides. As the story begins, quite a lot of groundwork has already been laid. Jason, the legendary Argonaut, had sailed to Colchis, to earn his inheritance by finding the fabled Golden Fleece. The king of Colchis was unwilling to give up the Fleece. But the king's daughter, the sorceress Medea, fell in love with Jason. She helped him to steal the Fleece, and also bore Jason two sons.

Since then, Jason has left Medea, and he's taken their young sons with him to Corinth. Now, he's now set to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth and Medea is not happy.

As ACT ONE begins, Glauce's friends reassure her about the upcoming wedding. Glauce knows all about Medea, and she's afraid of her. She prays to the gods to bless her union with Jason.

When Jason arrives in Corinth, Creon promises to protect both Jason and his children. Jason then presents Glauce with the Golden Fleece. That reminder of his past upsets her, and Jason comforts Glauce in a tender duet. It doesn't help, and Glauce's fears seem justified when Medea herself appears and denounces the pending marriage.

Creon promptly banishes Medea from the city, but she is allowed one chance to speak with Jason. He's moved when Medea reminds him that she's the mother of his children. But Jason is still determined to marry Glauce, and Medea vows that he'll regret his decision.

ACT TWO begins with a stormy orchestral introduction. Medea enters and she's still furious with Jason, who has refused to let her see their children. Her confidante Neris tells Medea that she should also beware of Creon, who wants her out of Corinth immediately.

Instead of leaving, Medea decides to confront Creon. She begs him for a little more time before she goes, so she can say goodbye to her children. Reluctantly, Creon agrees.

Neris sings a moving aria about her mistress's sad predicament, while Medea considers the situation. She knows that Jason has great affection for their sons and decides that his love for the children might be the key to getting back at him. Medea decides to send the boys to Glauce with some wedding presents: a robe and crown which have been doused with poison.

As the wedding festivities begin, Jason and Glauce go into the temple to pray, and Medea prays to the god of marriage to bless her murderous plot.

ACT THREE takes place in a square between the palace of Corinth and the city's great temple. Neris takes the children into the palace to present Medea's gifts to Glauce. Medea is left alone, and as she sings, we learn that she has another plan of vengeance against Jason. She intends to murder their children.

Neris reappears, leading the children out of the palace for their last visit with Medea. She tells Medea that Glauce has accepted the gifts — the plan has worked. But Medea can barely look at the two boys, and lets Neris know that her revenge against Jason is not complete. Neris begs her not to harm the children, and Medea seems to relent.

Then a commotion is heard from inside the palace. Glauce is dead, her flesh melted by the poisoned robe. Jason emerges from the palace gates, grief-stricken, along with an angry crowd intent on seizing Medea. As Jason searches for the children, Medea takes them into the temple.

Then, as the crowd gathers and Jason prays for the safety of his sons, Medea appears on the temple steps, carrying a dagger and covered with blood. Desperately, Jason asks, "where are my children?" Medea replies, "They were your children." She has killed the boys and set fire to the temple, which bursts into flames, engulfing Medea as the opera ends.

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