Distractions & indifference: Opera Omaha's MedeaReview
Luigi Cherubini’s Medea tells the story of the ultimate scorned woman. This opera is not produced very frequently which is a shame. The music is compelling, and the emotional drama is just as relevant today as it was when Euripides penned the original play in 431 BC. This new co-production by Opera Omaha and Wexford Opera was designed by actress Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia from the Harry Potter films!) and conducted by Jane Glover. Women were at the forefront on and off the stage.
According to the program, this production is a modern setting: “Location: Here, Time: Today.” The costume design seemed to contradict this somewhat. Medea and Jason looked rather modern, but other characters appeared to have stepped out of an 80s film. The set was relatively simplistic, accented by light wallpapered partitions and a large rocky centerpiece which seemed to be separate from the main drama.
It was clear that Opera Omaha had encountered a last-minute loss of their original Medea, and they opted to replace her with a dual performance of the title role. Soprano Jessica Stavros sang the role while actress Lacey Jo Benter provided the movement and interaction with the other characters.
Unfortunately, I do not think this concept worked effectively for the production. Stavros remained on the rocky centerpiece for the majority of the opera, singing with a music stand. I cannot fault her vocal performance technically, but it was clear that she is not fully comfortable with this role. I am certain that given more time she could develop the emotional colors and technical ease that would push her vocal performance of Medea to the next level.
Lacey Jo Benter’s physical embodiment of Medea was intriguing and nuanced, but the fact that she could only emote with closed lips limited the performance. Often, I felt confused as to which of the women I should be watching, and Benter sometimes came off as more of a distraction, especially in first act. I do commend Benter on her powerful physicality on stage. As Medea, she prowled like a predator, controlled and languid but punctuated by raw outbursts. Medea is a character of extremes. She is a mixture of seduction, wrath, and despair, and Benter captures all these without the use of her voice quite well.
The separation between the vocal and dramatic portrayals also had an impact on the interactions between Medea and the other characters. Most particularly, her duets with Jason seemed to lack the vocal chemistry that would have made their relationship more convincing and complex. There is just something more visceral about two people singing directly to each other, making eye contact, and bringing out the emotions of each other’s vocal lines. This connection is lost when Jason is singing to a mute Medea while the other singer accompanies him from ten feet upstage.
There was another non-speaking role included in this production, played by Sam Shapiro. Judging by the opening scene in the overture which showed Medea sawing the limbs off of a corpse, I believe Shapiro was supposed to be the ghost of Medea’s brother. His presence onstage was constant for all but the last moments of the opera, and he was the only actor who interacted with Stavros, silently mocking and menacing her as she sang. While used effectively at times, I also found this mute character to be distracting at times. Less may have been more.
Jason, portrayed by tenor Jesus Garcia, had the dashing looks and charisma appropriate to the character. Garcia’s voice had a clear heroic tone, and although his high range sounded a bit pinched in the first act, I felt like he blossomed both vocally and dramatically toward the end of the opera. The final scene where he is mourning his children and begging to see them was one of the most emotionally gripping moments of the opera.
It was the non-titular women of the opera that stole the show in my opinion. Vanessa Becerra sang the role of Glauce, Jason’s new wife and Medea’s hated rival. Becerra’s warm vocal tone filled the theater in a way that the other singers could not, and I was supremely jealous of the ease and fluidity of the elaborate runs in her aria. Glauce could easily be a one dimensional character in this story, but Becerra brought emotional complexity to her performance, balancing the necessary innocence and foreboding in her music.
Surrounded by a super pastel chorus of Corinthians that looked country club suburbanites, Glauce is meant to contrast against the darker palate of Medea. Repeatedly, love is emphasized as the driving force of her marriage with Jason, but in this production, Glauce is visibly pregnant on her wedding day. Is this marriage really about love? Although less obviously sexual than her rival, is Glauce any more pure and innocent than Jason’s first wife? Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well for Glauce when she naively accepts a wedding veil from her fiance’s spiteful ex…
Glauce’s father, Creonte, was portrayed by Weston Hurt. Vocally, he was a steady and commanding paternal figure and ruler. Dramatically, his character was perplexing. The scene where Medea is begging him for sanctuary involved a lot of seductive rubbing which neither of them seemed enthused about. Later after the wedding, he dragged a bridesmaid offstage for what I assumed was a sexual rendezvous of some sort, but his victim just seemed confused about what was going on.
Medea’s only sympathizer and companion was Neris, sung by Naomi Louisa O’Connell. Neris had one of the most compelling arias of the opera as she hovered over an unconscious Medea. This was one of the few times that I felt the ghostly figure of Medea’s brother was used purposefully, wrapping around Neris from behind and guiding her movements as she poured her heart out. Although her character looked like the ex girlfriend from The Wedding Singer, O’Connell portrayed Neris as a broken but well meaning woman. She follows Medea’s orders faithfully until the moment she realizes that her mistress is planning to kill her own children. Neris doesn’t question the poisonous gift to Glauce, and she has no qualms as she considers cracking Creonte over the head with a liquor bottle. She draws the line at killing kids, however, and she actually stands up to Medea briefly over it.
In this production, Neris is also accompanied by her own young daughter. This girl, a little psychopath in the making, mimics Medea throughout the opera and even interacts with the ghostly brother. She is continually drawing disturbing and crude images of murder on scattered papers, and at the end of the opera, she looms menacingly over her mother with a hacksaw. It is this image that dominate the finale rather than Medea herself which was disappointing. The climax of her revenge should belong to the title character. Sure, she’s a terrible mother who murdered her kids because their dad is an asshole, but Medea should own that moment! Cherubini’s music suggests that Medea is going out in a blaze of remorseless glory, but nothing manifested in the staging to support this. I wanted to either hate Medea or cheer her on, but I was left feeling indifferent and unsatisfied.