, March 2011
Is opera a thing of the past? After all, modern audiences have so many entertainment options at their literal fingertips that it seems increasingly quaint and odd to journey to a concert hall and see grand characters with very little connection to current events sing and strut about a stage filled with behemoth sets, all set to music that seems artificial and bizarrely ornate. And yet, opera maintains its perhaps inexplicable allure, even as we head, more jaded than ever, into the teen years of the 21st century. We may indeed be past the times of opera being the Art (with a capital A) that sets the standard for performance based entertainment, but there are still some remarkable composers working in the idiom, including American Mark Adamo and German Aribert Reimann. The two probably couldn’t be more different in either approach or compositional technique, which perhaps only goes to prove that opera is alive and well, as vibrant and challenging as ever, at least to its creators. But Reimann’s Medea actually managed to be a bit of a cause célèbre and a rather substantial hit upon its World Premiere in 2010 at the Vienna Opera, a production which is captured on this new Blu-ray. That’s especially impressive since Reimann is working within a mythological frame and in a musical language which is not all that accessible. Indeed, Reimann is deliberately dissonant, often overwhelmingly percussive, almost to the point of recalling the iconic instrumental pieces of Edgard Varèse, and works within an incredibly declamatory vocal style that challenges both singers and audiences alike.
The story of Medea has long fascinated artist, writers and musicians of incredibly disparate backgrounds, seemingly from virtually the time of Euripedes’ epochal drama. Just a brief list of some of the many composers who have approached the Medea myth in one shape or form is an incredibly daunting assemblage of some of the greatest and most varied names of the past several centuries: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Luigi Cherubini, Darius Milhaud, Samuel Barber, Mikis Theodorakis—these are only a few of the many classically inclined composers who have attempted to dramatize the myth, often with incredibly visceral music. Rock bands and even Broadway composers (Michael John LaChiusa, who seems to churn out one musical after another with alarming frequency) have been drawn to this raging story of isolation and infanticide.
Reimann works a very potent post-World War II Germanic language in his Medea, a piece that harkens back to Richard Strauss’ more intense vocal pieces (Salome, Elektra), which is perhaps only fitting as all three of these heroines work within a mythological framework and are victims of tortured psyches, which spill out in huge intervallic leaps and moments that resemble Sprechgesang. What’s notable about Reimann’s approach is how he frames the story in a sort of timeless setting where the relevance of such seemingly insignificant moments as Medea being forced to relinquish her headscarf suddenly have incredibly relevant ripples rustling up against a modern day consciousness.
Stage director Marco Arturo Marelli has become known as a sort of Reimann specialist, and he stages Reimann’s Medea with a genuine flair and at times a very disturbing emotional tenor. All of these characters are wounded in their own way, and they play out their iconic drama on a stage strewn with rubble, as if their world itself had become as shattered as their interior lives. The production design here is lean and often quite striking, including the use of different planes of action, as well as a sort of quasi-elevator that descends to allow characters to literally alight from above, as if in some human approximation of a Deus ex Machina.
Musically, this is a bracing and frankly abrasive piece that may send some listeners reeling. Medea is portrayed by Marlis Petersen, a soprano of no inconsiderable technique, who manages to leap and vault over Reimann’s insanely difficult topography with apparent ease. Medea’s erstwhile husband Jason is handled effectively by baritone Adrian Eröd, who may not have the peaks and valleys that Medea does, but who must sustain an emotional intensity which Reimann depicts with sudden flights of virtuosity. Bringing a darker tone and a more than palpable ferocity to this piece is Elisabeth Kulman as Medea’s nurse Gora.
Conductor Michael Boder has his work cut out for him in this extremely difficult score, and at times the Vienna State Opera Orchestra seems intimidated by the sheer bulk and mass of the music before them. Best here is the amazing use of percussion, which assaults the listener in unexpected ways and lends the entire evening an unsettling ambience that perfectly mirrors Medea’s increased isolation and desperation. It’s somewhat interesting to note (no pun intended) that Medea was actually commissioned by the Vienna State Opera, so one would assume they knew what they were in for, musically speaking.
Richard Strauss pointed the way to this declamatory style virtually a century ago, and German opera in particular has never been the same since. One might think that the now quaint seeming early years of the 20th century, particularly those pre-World War I, would not be an especially fertile ground for grooming music of this intensity and angularity. Somehow the post-World War II zeitgeist seems to be a more natural breeding ground for this kind of vocabulary, and in fact Reimann has not been shy about admitting that the horrors of fire bombings of Berlin and Potsdam he witnessed as a child caused an indelible scar on his psyche which he is perhaps still trying to exorcize, musically if not otherwise. In fact, the fire scene of Medea contains some of Reimann’s most viscerally exciting music, as if the composer is finally coming face to face with his own long suppressed rage and isolation.
What’s immediately striking about Medea, at least on first listen, is the almost achingly lyrical coda, after the tragedy has more or less completely unfolded. Some composers would have taken Medea post-murder psychological state as a point for even greater fury and rage, but Reimann seems to approach his heroine as a woman who has been backed into a corner and has chopped her way out in the only way she feels she can. That delivers the character not only to the ultimate arbiters of her fate at Delphi, but also, perhaps just as thankfully, to the blessed shores of a relative peace and tonality after almost two hours of incredible sturm und drang.
Medea arrives on Blu-ray from ArtHaus Musik with an AVC encoded 1080i transfer in 1.78:1. While there’s nothing too horrible to complain about in terms of image quality here, it lacks the sharpness and definition which have been a highlight of other ArtHaus Musik releases, as well as the many other classically oriented labels distributed by Naxos. The overall image here is relatively soft, lacking in fine detail (except in close-ups) and just sort of pallid and murky. The one notable exception is the fine delineation in the weird, rubble strewn rocky unit set, which is delivered with abundant fine detail. Colors are often muted, with the exception of Medea’s bright red and purplish-pink gown, a piece which looks great on this Blu-ray, abundantly saturated and somehow indicating the blood and mayhem which is coming. There is some noticeable edge enhancement on this release, made more noticeable by the backlit scrim.
Medea is presented on Blu-ray with two blistering and boisterous lossless audio tracks, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and a standard uncompressed stereo LPCM 2.0 mix. Fidelity here is brilliant and occasionally even brash, with huge waves of percussion breaking over the surrounds like manic waves in a tsunami. Highs are just occasionally on the brittle side here, especially with regard to some of the higher vocal passages. While dynamic range is impressive, to say the least, and overall this track is very well articulated, there are occasional balance issues between the orchestra and singers, most of which I feel certain stem from the overwhelming magnitude of the orchestration and probably some ambient issues in what seems to be an overly echo-prone hall. You’ll therefore hear individual voices occasionally get swallowed up by the sheer size of the sound emanating from the pit. Overall, though, this is an incredibly fine rendering of Reimann’s intense score, with its obviously intentional stridency intact.
Special Features and Extras
Unfortunately, no supplements are included on this Blu-ray. This World Premiere release really could have benefited immensely from some background information having been supplied, especially with regard to the many other treatments of the Medea myth that have populated both opera and the other arts through many, many centuries.
Overall Score and Recommendation
It’s perhaps ironic that in America the post-World War II era saw the rise of what became known as “easy listening” music, lush orchestral treatments of the popular songs of the day, the sort of music a tired businessman could come home and put on his hi-fi, kicking back in his Barcolounger with a martini and the evening newspaper. How funny, then, that in the world of opera, the post-World War II era became one of tumult and incredibly angular, dissonant music, as if to respond to “easy listening” with an emphatic “Harumph!” Reimann works within the same declamatory style that Richard Strauss did in Salome and Elektra, but he brings an incredibly percussive element to his orchestral accompaniment. What that means is that this challenging piece is probably not going to be a lot of people’s cup of tea. Those who can withstand the barrage of cymbals, drums and other beaten instruments, as well as the unbelievably baroque vocal stylings Reimann culls from his compositional palette will find Medea to be a viscerally exciting piece that receives a startling production here that will not soon leave most viewers’ memories. Recommended.