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Robert Benson, August 2011

REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (NTSC) 101551
REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101552

... Reimann’s dark, abrasive music is perfect for the subject, as are the stark sets. Action is not interrupted by “arias,” as the tragic story progresses. It is a tour-de-force for a singer who can get it all together, and Marlis Petersen surely manages that. Video and audio are excellent as experienced on the Blu-Ray edition. The usually reserved Viennese audience gave this a resounding ovation, all included. This a powerful modern treatment of the legendary Greek scorned woman, in a performance that could not be bettered. Experienced on Blu-Ray, video and audio are state-of-the-art. Recommended!

Dave Billinge
MusicWeb International, May 2011

For those who find too many jokes in Wozzeck, Elektra or Die Soldaten this is your moment. Aribert Reimann’s opera in four pictures Medea is just under two hours of intense and emotional drama which will leave you drained but deeply impressed. The DVD makes the usual mistake of putting an extract from the opera over the disc menu but apart from that they don’t put a foot wrong. That is, except near the end when the death of King Creon seems to take place on stage but just off camera and one has to guess what has just happened from the fleeting shadows. It was recorded at the premiere plus two subsequent performances in the same run early in 2010. The sound is very good with the DD5.1 placing you virtually in the orchestra pit with the singers close in front of you and the orchestra all around. Were this a concert that aural picture would be very disturbing but for an opera it is only odd but acceptable. Picture quality is first class, which makes one regret that it did not arrive on Blu-ray.

Medea proceeds by a series of set-pieces to its quiet and chilling conclusion and, on disc at least, pauses just once. First we see Medea as outsider, dressed in a plausibly prehistoric woollen cloak with hair dressed to match. Her nurse Gora is dressed in different colours but is clearly from the same culture. By contrast Jason arrives in a boiler suit with his suitcase from which he produces jacket, trousers and shoes that would not be out of place on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. I must admit that was a worrying moment but when the Corinthians appeared attired in elegant long white and cream coats and dresses the designer’s decisions made sense. Medea is the unwelcome foreigner and the Corinthians are the civilised and cultured people. Jason is trying to gain acceptance by looking as much like them as he can. Medea is firmly her own woman. The third element in the drama is the group from the council of the Amphyctions led by the herald. They are silver clad and distinctly ‘Ancient Greek’, as befits those bringing verdicts from a group containing the famous Delphic Oracle and thus associated with the Gods. Medea fails to be accepted; the herald announces banishment for Jason and Medea; Jason blames her; she revenges herself on the Corinthians and on Jason in the most horrific way and finally goes off to face her punishment at the hands of the Delphic priests. Such a grim and archaic scenario might seem far from the concerns of 2010 but without any hint of political emphasis points are made about the rejection of foreigners, the assumption of inherent superiority by the ‘cultured’ and ‘civilised’ who dress well simply because they are rich and at peace, and the ease with which the women are made to take the blame and the children frequently suffer the consequences. Medea is faced with her own ‘Sophie’s choice’ when Jason bargains with her to take just one of her sons. She can choose which! All this is staged against a rocky Moonscape with the elegant palace literally dropping in from above for its inhabitants to issue orders and rejections. The landscape itself falls in avalanche as Medea takes her revenge.

The music for all this must have posed problems for the cast but they acquit themselves triumphantly well, particularly Marlis Petersen and Max Emanuel Cencic. The clean picture shows how closely the cast are watching the conductor, as well they might. There are no tunes as such but the score has an audible structure and a huge range of expression allowing it to illustrate the plot as well as imply much of the violent emotional undercurrent. The bass instruments and the percussion have prominent parts throughout. Those who have heard the recording of Reimann’s Lear will be relieved to know Medea isn’t quite so loud as that but still generates quite enough noise to frighten the horses. I certainly cannot imagine Reimann writing a successful comedy! The music can be quiet however, as at the very end when Medea walks slowly off into the stony landscape to face the judgement of the Gods with the final words to Jason, “the dream is over…the night not yet”. Chilling indeed.

Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, February 2011

REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (NTSC) 101551
REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD)101552

This fabulous recording of a commission by the Wiener Staatsoper, in collaboration with the Frankfurt Opera, brings us the world premiere of Medea. Reimann’s eighth opera and his first in ten years, Medea was awarded World Premiere of the Year by the German magazine Opernwelt. Reimann focuses on a few hours of the life of Medea, a mythological Greek protagonist who seeks revenge on her husband, who has fallen in love with another woman. Visions from Reimann’s scarred childhood—during which he saw Berlin and Potsdam bombed and blazing—are incorporated into Medea as they were in his other operas Traumspiel, Melusine, and Troades.

The primary cast of six features German coloratura Marlis Petersen, who is intense and accurate as Medea. Her angular leaps sound effortless, and she easily elicits sympathy from the viewer with her desperate, wailing melismas. She spends most of her time crawling around on a desolate, futuristic landscape. The score is dense, powerful, and atonal, yet the music reflects the physical ambiance and actions of the characters so artfully that its accessibility to the general listener is pretty much a non-issue. Conductor Michael Boder was wisely chosen for his familiarity with Reimann, having premiered his Schloss in 1992, and stage director Marelli’s reputation for world premieres will continue unscathed. This production is not one to miss.

Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, February 2011

STRAUSS, R.: Elektra (Baden-Baden, 2010) (NTSC) OA1046D
REIMANN, A.: Medea (Vienna State Opera, 2010) (NTSC) 101551

By a coincidence, new videos of two operas based on Greek tragedies have appeared in the same month. Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” (1909) is on the Opus Arte label and features a 2010 performance from the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann conducting. The other, on an ArtHaus DVD, is Aribert Reimann’s “Medea” in a 2010 performance at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Michael Boder. [In this article, the German spellings of the Greek names will be used.]

Both works center on a woman driven to the utmost limits of human endurance and bent on a horrible revenge. Elektra lives only for the day when her brother Orestes will return to murder their mother Klytamnestra, who had murdered their father Agamemnon. Medea has given up all for love of Jason, who had stolen the Golden Fleece from her father. Once back in Greece, Jason decides to marry a Corinthian princess, take the children and send Medea into exile.

Stories like this demand powerful music. After experimenting with a new orchestral sound for his “Salome” (another female you would not like to meet), Strauss went a step further with “Elektra.” But the score is entirely dramatic and seems to fit the action and emotions. A leitmotif based on the word “Agamemnon” opens the work and is heard at crucial points. The effeminacy of Aegisth is clearly underlined by the bouncy little theme that accompanies his first entrance. (His stage time is very short!)

The score for “Medea” is more like a movie soundtrack. As the program notes point out, Reimann abandons any sense of beat and lets the music flow around the action. This might be very well, but the effect is that it all sounds the same, regardless of what is happening on stage. The declamatory style of singing so beloved of recent composers (could they give us a beautiful melody if they wanted to?) will strike some as a group of actors shouting at each other at the top of their vocal range.

This works fine for Medea, who is almost always at the end of her patience—and sanity. But when every one else on stage is in the same flight path, it does become (well, let me say it) boring. Some relief comes when the young Princess sings; she does sound like a classic Grecian Sandra Dee. But it is also practically a “vocalise” in which arbitrary syllables are given multiple notes.

The set of “Elektra” consists of a huge black parallelogram with a blood red background peeking through. When the shape is rotated out of sight, the rest of the stage is all red, with a silly staircase leading nowhere. “Medea” takes place in a sort of bombed out-building site that suits the mood of the action.

Both productions start with the women dressed in an approximation of Greek costume. And then—as is absolutely required in opera today—the male chorus of “Elektra” show up in modern garb, with one dressed in a clownish top hat and tails. “Medea” also has the women dressed in period costume. Then enter Jason in modern fatigues. And later Orestes in a dark suit. Why? Timelessness? Saving money on effective costumes? They are all doing it? The audience didn’t seem to mind and I read that this production was the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, a very touchy subject. Elektra (Linda Watson) is done no favors by her close-ups. And for a character who eats her meals from a dish along with the dogs, she has not lost any weight (to be tactful). Klytamnestra (Jane Henschel) is simply obese; but that fits the character of a totally decadent Queen. On the other hand, Medea (Marlis Petersen) is very sexy and believable in the role.

One last point. Hugo Hoffmannsthal’s libretto for “Elektra” sticks pretty closely to the Sophocles play. Reimann based his libretto for “Medea” on the Euripides version with deletions and with additions taken from an earlier German treatment of the legend. Much is made of the Golden Fleece in the opera, although it is only alluded to in the play.

So there we are. Two works with so many similarities—Greek tragic sources, idiosyncratic scores, mixed costuming, surreal staging—and yet so different in effect because of casting and (in the case of the videos) camera work.

Parterre Box, January 2011

In 2006, Aribert Reimann was offered a commission to create a new work for Vienna State Opera. After initial hesitation—”The creative process can sometimes be rather a struggle and isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience”—he went to work. After a flirtation with a Camus drama, he settled on Franz Grillparzer’s version of Medea as his subject matter.

Arthaus Musik has released a DVD of a live performance of this Medea, during its world premiere run in Vienna. A remarkable ensemble cast and brilliant stage direction by Marco Arturo Marelli bring this startling music drama to vivid life.

Reimann’s extremely dense score peers into the minds and emotions of its characters, and maintains a powerful dramatic tension throughout its 113 minutes of music. Those looking for tonal and melodic beauty will decidedly not find it here. There are absolutely no moments of repose in the score.

The DVD’s accompanying notes quote conductor Michael Boder: “It is all about deep seated insecurities, yawning abysses…Reimann has achieved this feeling of insecurity by creating fields of sound that have less to do with a regular beat than with song and breathing.” The music is unrelentingly unpleasant, but is absolutely brilliant in reflecting his troubled characters’ states of mind and feeling.

This production emphasizes Jason’s “vaulting ambition” as he gradually finds Medea an impediment to his personal and career advancement. The production gives a stark contrast between Kreon’s Corinth, a high-tech city that rises into the sky, and the desolate wasteland outside, looking much like a lunar landscape. Medea and her Colchian servant Gora are dressed in vibrant, messy, primitive reds and earth colors while the Corinth leaders are dressed in clean lines, all in pure white. This becomes particularly striking when Medea’s children change from Colchian garb into the “civilized” whites of Corinth.

The opera begins with Medea literally burying the artifacts of her mystical past, including the Golden Fleece, so that she and Jason might be acceptable to Kreon. It is immediately clear that Jason intends to find protection in Corinth whether Medea is accepted or not; this husband-wife conflict is palpable throughout the opera.

Jason is gradually seduced by Kreon’s daughter Kreusa, played splendidly as a slightly demented Barbie by Michaela Selinger. There is a wonderful scene in which Creusa, trying to find common ground with Medea, tries to teach her Corinthian civility with both a workout routine and harp lessons, at which Medea fails disastrously. The scene is both amusing and pathetic.

The most striking scene in the opera is the arrival of the Herald of the Amphyctions, who comes to demand that Kreon ban both Jason and Medea from the city’s protection. The Herald is sung by the astonishing countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, in an otherworldly male soprano voice of power, beauty, and clarity. I have never heard a male singer produce this kind of sound. If you’ve never heard Cencic, you must. The scene becomes eerie, frightening, and deeply strange.

Soprano Marlis Peterson, a noted Lulu, is simply brilliant as Medea, both vocally and dramatically. The role gives new meaning to “high tessitura”, with much of the vocal writing in the highest and most emotional range. There are hair-raising leaps in pitch throughout, and the role demands an emotional and vocal intensity from which most singing actresses would shrink. Peterson has mastered this role completely, and never “lets the ball drop” in her searing intensity.

The entire cast is excellent. Adrian Erod is a three-dimensional Jason; always clear in his character’s shifting intentions and singing with a variety of vocal choices. Michael Roider’s Kreon has its woofy moments, but we hear and see the King’s semi-paranoid behavior in protecting the city and helping his daughter to her desired husband. Mezzo Elisabeth Kulman is a potent Gora, producing torrents of powerful singing with clarity of tone and volume to spare.

I cannot imagine a more difficult score to conduct, but Boder has mastered it, drawing an emotional and precise reading from the Orchester der Weiner Staatsoper. From beginning to end, Boder assures his audience that he is in complete control of Reimann’s twisting, turning music.

I would urge those watching this DVD to give it time. It took me at least 15 minutes to accommodate myself to Reimann’s sometimes-cacophonic sounds. At first I thought, “OK, unrelentingly ugly attempt at being darker than Berg.” But soon, I was swept up in the drama and realized that the sounds were remarkably perceptive in expressing the inner workings of the characters’ minds. This is a work for those who love opera as theatre…

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