ElAnt v1n7 - REVIEWS - Medea (Sydney opera, based on Seneca)

Volume 1, Number 7
February 1994

Medea by Gordon Kerry,
based on Seneca,
with libretto by Justin Macdonnell,
Chamber Made Opera,
Wharf Theatre,
Sydney, Australia
26 November 1993.

Roger Pitcher,
Department of Classics & Ancient History,
University of New England,
N.S.W. 2351,
e-mail: rpitcher@metz.une.edu.au

Medea is a great operatic heroine. The wronged woman, passionately in love with her husband, devoted mother of sons. Against her Jason doesn't stand a chance. Self-centred, politically ambitious, cold-hearted. This new opera based on the Seneca play provides a powerful re-statement of the well-known story in terms which highlight the resolve of Medea and the vulnerability of Jason. Seneca's text proves highly suitable as the foundation for an opera such as this, with a concentration on the human interaction between Medea, who is on stage almost the entire time, and the other characters. While the action of the opera relates the revenge of Medea it succeeds in presenting Jason as a man torn between love for his children and love for his wife, and it is in this that the dramatic interest of the opera lies.

The opera is divided into five scenes. In the first Medea (Merlyn Quaife) announces her intention of taking revenge on Jason for marrying Creusa, rejects the counsel of the Nurse (Angela Giblin) and convinces Creon (David Lemke) to allow her to stay one extra day in Corinth. Scene three provides the central exchange between Medea and Jason (Michael Smith), following a short scene two which establishes the passion of Medea. In scene four Medea engages in witchcraft before sending the gifts to the palace, leading to the final encounter with Jason in scene five. This careful structuring of the plot introduces a satisfying level of balance at strategic points: the passionate Medea of scene two 'If you seek, poor little heart, what limit you should set to hate, copy your love' (cf. Seneca 397-398 Si quaeris odio, misera, quem statuas modum, imitare amorem ) becomes the witch of scene four; Jason's torment in scene three during which he exposes his love for his children 'I would sooner part with light and life than put them once again at risk' (cf. Seneca 548-549) is compounded in scene five as Medea kills the boys in front of him, leaving him alone on stage with his despair which mirrors that of Medea at the outset of the opera. The manner in which Macdonnell has trimmed the text to its essentials brings out the dramatic qualities of Seneca's play, exposing it as much more than a rhetorical exercise.

Kerry uses the Nurse, Creon and Jason as the Chorus, a doubling of parts which reinforces the intimate nature of this opera. The role of the Chorus is somewhat reduced in comparison with the original Seneca, but it provides crucial support for the dramatic action in scenes two and four. With the exception of a baritone solo in scene two the Chorus sings in Latin, a device which links it dramatically with the Nurse and Medea, both of whom also break into Latin at certain points of the opera. This is particularly effective as a means of underlining the differences between characters and the dialogue which is not communication firstly in scene two (Medea/Nurse), in scene three (Medea/Jason) and most dramatically in scene four when Medea casts her spells in Latin (Seneca 817-842) through which the Nurse sings in English, based on Seneca 731-739. Thus is established a sense of 'otherness', a strangeness which marks Medea as an outsider, and now an outcast.

The production makes much of this 'otherness', portraying Medea as the one literally colourful character against a uniformly grey background. Creon, Jason and the Nurse, grey-dressed in Victorian-inspired formality, blend into the grey Victorian Classical set and provide a foil for Medea's multi-coloured gown and jewellery suggestive of the East rather than the West. Colour too is central to the magic employed in scene four, when Medea bedaubs the grey walls with magic signs in blue, yellow and pink, and spreads diagonally across the floor the gorgeous fabric destined for Creusa. It is no surprise then that Medea's part is musically the most colourful as well as the most demanding. When Medea is on stage it is hard not to look at her.

Merlyn Quaife has created a superbly controlled Medea, using her fine stage presence to extract the full dramatic impact inherent in the text and music. Michael Smith supports her well as Jason, convincingly portraying an emotional man still subject to Medea's attraction (which he rejects in scene three) who is shattered by her hardness in scene five. Whereas Medea's love turns to hate, Jason's turns to despair; Quaife and Smith together bring these emotional shifts to life. David Lemke as Creon and Angela Giblin as the Nurse provide the counterbalance to the more highly charged Jason and Medea; Lemke's powerfully modulated voice is particularly suited to the gravity of Creon. The ensemble in a piece such as this is every bit as important as the individual voices, especially considering the use of three of the parts as the Chorus.

The score for percussion, cello, flute and keyboards is approachable without sounding trite or precious. Mark Summerbell's conducting brings out the textured nature of the score and integrates it well with the singing voices. When an opera relies for so much of its impact on the dramatic content of the text it is imperative that this not be obscured by insensitive playing or a musical style which alienates the audience. On both these counts this production is highly successful. It is a pleasure to experience a dramatic performance which combines a contemporary operatic idiom with a powerful Classical text and illustrates the way in which familiar stories can be presented in fresh ways. This opera deserves success and a place in the dramatic history of Jason and Medea.

Roger Pitcher
e-mail: rpitcher@metz.une.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 7 - February 1994
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606