Luigi Cherubini was Italian by birth
but spent most of his life in Paris.
He was highly regarded during his lifetime.
Beethoven counted him as the greatest;
next to himself, of course. He composed
in most genres and his church music
has been revived in recent years, not
least thanks to Riccardo Muti’s recordings
for EMI. Of his many operas, Medea,
or Medée as it was in
French, may be his best work. At least
it is the one that is performed now
and then, even though it has never been
fully established as a standard. One
reason may be that it isn’t very dramatic
or theatrical; much of the music is
closer to oratorio style. It was originally
composed as an opéra-comique
- with spoken dialogue. The composer
himself made changes and quite extensive
cuts for further productions. When it
was performed in Frankfurt in 1855,
Franz Paul Lachner changed it further
and composed recitatives in a Wagnerian
style. It is in this format that it
has been performed until quite recently
but normally in an Italian translation
of the German libretto. During the 20th
century it was practically unheard until
Maria Callas dug it out for performances
in May 1953 during the Maggio Musicale
Fiorentino and later the same year at
La Scala. There exists a recording from
La Scala in 1955 with Bernstein conducting.
A few years later Callas made a studio
recording with Serafin. There are a
couple of later recordings: Decca set
it down in 1967 with the young Gwyneth
Jones in the title role and Pilar Lorengar,
Fiorenza Cossotto and Bruno Prevedi
in other roles. Lamberto Gardelli conducted
and the same conductor also lead a Hungaroton
recording with Sylvia Sass as Medea
and Veriano Luchetti as Jason. The rest
The story is set in
ancient Greece. Jason (Giasone)
has had an affair with the sorceress
Medea which resulted in two children.
Then he abandons her to marry Glauce,
the daughter of Creonte, King of Corinth.
The first act takes place on the eve
of the wedding. Medea appears and claims
Jason. Creonte orders her to leave Corinth
within a day. The children will stay
in Corinth. In the second act she tries
in vain to get Jason back but is promised
that she will see the children one last
time before she leaves. As revenge she
sends a poisoned robe to Glauce, who
dies in the third act, whereupon she
also kills the children and sets fire
to the temple. Not for the faint-hearted!
The present version
was recorded at the opening performance
of the new production at the Berlin
State Opera. It is sung in German. What
makes it of special interest is the
conducting of Vittorio Gui, who is sadly
under-represented on records. Last year
I reviewed his Aida very favourably.
It was made for Cetra in 1950 ( see
Here his conducting is also a great
asset, especially interesting since
it was he who conducted the Callas performances
in Florence. The sound is murky but
quite detailed. Gui grabs every opportunity
to whip up the tension, which isn’t
that easy in this opera. For all its
high-strung drama it is curiously static
for long stretches. The overture is
a great piece of orchestral writing,
much more symphonic than his contemporaries
and Gui gives it an almost frantic reading.
The short orchestral opening to act
II is again fast and rhythmically alert.
Gui makes a powerful build-up of tension
in the arc-shaped introduction to act
III. The dramatic final scene again
shows Gui’s grip of the situation, worthy
of any horror movie with the chorus
yelling in panic. Elsewhere he does
what he can to keep the tension boiling
and is well supported by the State Opera
orchestra. The chorus under the strain
of such consistent intensity does not
sing well all of the time. There are
too many shrill and wobbly sopranos.
The other participant
of special interest is the likewise
under-recorded Inge Borkh. On commercial
records she made Turandot for
Decca and Elektra for DG with
Karl Böhm. She also sang Orff’s
Antigonae for DG under Leitner
but the real classic among her recordings
is the RCA Red Seal disc with scenes
from Salome and Elektra
conducted by Fritz Reiner. This was
recently reissued in SACD sound, a disc
which drew an enthusiastic review not
long ago (see review).
The present recordings
were made just a couple of years before
the Berlin performance. By then Borkh
had lost a deal of her assurance and
vocal potency. Maybe the recording is
partly to blame but she sounds so much
thinner and sometimes unsteady. To begin
with the voice is also quite occluded
and in the aria Dei tuoi figli (CD1
track 14) the well-known music
from this opera, she seemingly fights
a losing battle with the high tessitura.
It may have sounded better on location.
Seeing this actress-turned-singer as
well as hearing her was probably something
different. Anyway there are ovations
from the audience which I felt reluctant
to join. Interestingly enough she seems
to find her true form after the applause
and sings the rest of the act with much
more confidence and a glorious ring,
approaching the sound I remembered from
the Strauss disc. Beauty of tone is
the first attribute that comes to mind
when talking of high dramatic sopranos
and Ms Borkh’s voice is the musical
equivalent of a welding flame, blazing
through the orchestra with white intensity.
The almost tactile identification on
the Strauss disc is just as tangible
here. One must admire her stamina: there
are no signs of fatigue even at the
very end. Still I have mixed feelings
about her. She doesn’t always feel comfortable
with the part, and maybe she shouldn’t.
Callas on her studio recording isn’t
comfortable either and by that time
she had lost much of the - relative
- purity of her tone. Gwyneth Jones
in 1967 was still a lyric soprano or
at best lirico spinto, more at home
in Desdemona; she is also over-powered
by the part. I haven’t heard Sylvia
Sass, but she was also more lyrical.
Maybe Birgit Nilsson could have been
a Medea of one’s dreams?
The best singing in
the whole opera is delivered by Stina-Britta
Melander, who sings Glauce with crystal
clear voice and perfect coloratura.
Her aria O Amore, vieni a me!
(CD1 track 3) is as good a version as
any and she needs not fear competition
from either Renata Scotto or Pilar Lorengar.
Interested readers should be reminded
of the retrospective 2 CD set with her
"From 14 to 80" which I reviewed
a few months ago (see review).
As Neris, Sieglinde Wagner turns in
a fine interpretation, the only problem
being that she has a timbre that is
sometimes very similar to Borkh’s, although
Wagner is of course a mezzo. Her act
II aria with the beautiful cello solo
Solo un pianto con te versare
(CD2 track 2) is warmly and beautifully
sung. The completely unknown Tomislav
Neralic, more baritone than bass, sings
Creonte’s part powerfully and expressively.
Sadly Ludwig Suthaus, legendary heldentenor,
famous for his Tristan and Siegmund
for Furtwängler, is long past his
best and although there are glimpses
of what he once was, much of his singing
is frankly painful to hear.
The bonus tracks, Strauss’s
Vier letzte Lieder, add very
little to the picture of Inge Borkh.
Certainly it does not upset the prevailing
version hierarchy of this oft-recorded
cycle. For my money it is Lisa Della
Casa who is the reigning queen, closely
followed by Schwarzkopf - her first
recording, due for re-release on Naxos.
Among more recent versions Soile Isokoski
and Felicity Lott have much to recommend
them. What Inge Borkh lacks, first and
foremost, is warmth. Only in the last
song, Im Abendrot, does she feel
quite at ease but here and elsewhere
there is too much strain and unsteadiness.
The sound is quite dim but the orchestra
is seemingly good and the important
instrumental solos are well taken. By
the way she sings the songs in the published
order, not the order that Flagstad and
Furtwängler chose at the premiere
in 1950, which also is the chosen order
for Della Casa and Lott.
As for a recommended
recording of Medea I am torn,
having lived with the Callas version
for many years and learnt to accept
the warts. The Gardelli Decca version
may be a safer bet but it is more small-scale.
As for his later Hungaroton set, I see
in Peter Gammond’s The Illustrated
Encyclopedia of Recorded Opera (Salamander
Books, 1979) that it is marked with
a star, indicating a specially merited
recording. Gui’s version is interesting
for the maestro’s white heat conducting,
for an intense but flawed reading of
the title part and for good singing
in some of the secondary parts. There
is an informative essay on the opera
and on Inge Borkh’s career.
Oper Berlin" as it was then (approx.
"The Berlin Municipal
Opera"), later renamed "Deutsche
Oper Berlin" opened soon after
was led until 1947 by bass-baritone
Michael Bohnen and then by Heinz
Tietjen and Carl Ebert (until 1961).
Until autumn 1961 they played in
"Teater des Westens" in Kantstrasse
and from then in the new opera house
in Bismarckstrasse under the present
name. This means that this Medea was
recorded in "Teater des Westens".
It should not be confused with Deutsche
Staatsoper in Unter den Linden,
We would like to thank Mr John Johnston
for raising this on the MusicWeb Bulletin
which was in the DDR part of Berlin,
where also Komische Oper, founded by
Walter Felsenstein, was located.