Aribert REIMANN (b. 1936)
Medea: Opera in four pictures (2010)
Marlis Petersen - Medea: Michaela Selinger - Kreusa: Elisabeth Kulman - Gora: Michael Roder - Kreon: Adrian Eröd - Jason: Max Emanuel Cencic - Herald
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Michael Boder
Stage Director, Set andLighting Design: Marco Arturo Marelli
Costume Design: Dagmar Niefind
rec. Vienna State Opera, 2010
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DD 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9; Region 0


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.

Reimann has an impressive history of success with his operas, including Lear written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Das Schloss after Kafka's novel. He has won many prizes and been honoured by the German State. The Vienna State Opera commissioned Reimann to write Medea which is based not on Euripides but Franz Grillparzer's 19th century reworking of the story. The first run was almost sold out and the premiere itself received a 25 minute ovation. Though a difficult listen it is not hard to see and hear why it was such a success in Vienna and subsequently in Hamburg last autumn. Once one's ear has adjusted to the typically hectoring style and sound of German expressionist opera, for which we have to blame the Richard Strauss of Salomé and Elektra, it is near impossible to stop watching for the full 100 plus minutes and even to join in the tumultuous applause for all concerned. So often designers and composers are way apart, especially in German opera. What with Don Giovanni set on the Moon and Tristan in a school assembly hall, we have had our fill of directorial misfires. Probably because Reimann is alive to argue he has received a staging to make him proud. The only operatic cliché is Jason's entry with a suitcase but at least it was not perspex!

Medea proceeds by a series of set0pieces 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.

Dave Billinge

An electrifying new opera in a superb production, but not for the faint-hearted.