New York,- By Brenda Smiley
The story of Medea is an oft-told tale, most notably in theater, opera and film, pulling at heartstrings, unspoken fears and desires for revenge. Betrayal and breaking of oaths was not the Athenian way in Euripides’ day. As she gets away with murder, we recoil from her deeds, yet root for her all the way.
The recent Carnegie Hall performance of Luigi Cherubini’s late 18th century Medee, was propelled by the soprano Irini Tsirakidou. The demanding title role, once owned by Maria Callas, calls for a soprano with stamina. It was thrillingly sung by Athenian native Tsirakidou, who, fittingly, is a winner of the Maria Callas Competition in Athens. So it was a bold undertaking – and a treat for a New York audience to experience the Cherubini masterpiece in its original form, with the very capable Manhattan Philharmonic and a hearty Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, both masterfully conducted by Peter Tiboris.
As in Euripides’ play, the opera is set in Corinth, and Medea is a captive of the Greeks, taken from her native Colchis where Jason had come to recover the Golden Fleece. He soon tires of his foreign trophy wife, and plans to have her exiled so that he can marry Corinthian King Creon’s young daughter, Dirce. This does not bode well with Medee, who hates a man who doesn’t keep his word, and calls on her gods to avenge his betrayal. Ms Tsirakidou brought a fierceness and surprising depth of character range to her impassioned pleas to Jason and Creon, and her inner struggle toward the fateful decision. As Jason, Romanian tenor Attila Fekete rose to the challenge in valiant duets to soothe his bride-to-be, Dirce (sung by soprano Simona Bertini), and to scold and condemn his “barbarian” first wife, Medee (Tsirakidou).
“Ms Tsirakidou is a great artist,” says Greek-American conductor Tiboris. “She has a very special voice, and when it comes to projects like Medee,” he says, “I call on her.” (They worked together in 2003 in Rossini’s Ermione, in which Ms Tsirakidou made her debut at the Dallas Opera.) Founder and director of MidAmerica Productions, Tiboris is a second generation Greek, who grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (his ancestral home is in the Peloponnese, near Kalamata).As a child he played a church organ, and now conducts orchestras worldwide, showcasing new talent and bringing singers such as Ms Tsirakidou to a broader audience.
What made this Medea, in its rarely performed French opera-comique format even more unusual was the accompaniment of English dialogue in a newly translated adaptation by Peter Meineck, director and founder of the Aquila Theatre Company. (A direct translation of Cherubini’s formal French was projected on the backstage wall.) Meineck said he first conceived of doing the opera-concert in conjunction with Tiboris’ company last year. It took him a couple of weeks to translate the libretto, but his actors had only a few hours of rehearsal in which to adjust to the domed space which can send sibilants spiraling.
Seven principal opera singers presided downstage left, alternating with six actors stage right, who delivered exceptional readings of the dialogue in English. The actors’ spoken words complemented the singers’ operatic voices. “It was risky stuff, but we pulled it off,” says Tiboris.
As the opera progressed, one became increasingly aware of the two Medeas, flanking conductor Tiboris on either side of the podium. There was a clear mutual empathy as each performed and the other watched. (We could feel Ms Tsirakidou digging deep, as she pushed away restraints, singing freely and with greater intensity.) They were resonating instruments, sisters in sympathy, each absorbing the other’s performance, eventually merging personas. In a generous curtain call gesture, Ms Tsirakidou walked over to her alter ego, actor Lisa Carter, and they embraced in triumph. . . .
The ensemble of British, American and New Zealand actors admirably held their own with the singers. Lisa Carter was especially poignant in the woman wronged. Creon was read by Robert Richmond, Jason was Anthony Cochrane, Dirce, the lovely Jessica Boevers, Neris, the incisive Lisa Harrow, and Louis Butelli played chorus leader and messenger. Others in the operatic cast include Marc Claesen, bass, as Creon and Kitty Ballester, mezzo-soprano, as Neris.
“I want to get audiences interested in Greek drama,” says Meineck. “At the end of the day, if you can turn people on, make it accessible, yet the quality is still superb, then the art form survives.” Also, he said, “It’s a good thing to see a lot of young people here, a diverse audience. It really shows New York.”
The Aquila Theatre Company, a London transplant since 1999, has been making its presence felt in New York, and in nationwide tours, with innovative productions of classical drama, principally Shakespeare and the Greeks.
World-renowned conductor Tiboris, currently in Syros for the Festival of the Aegean, a project he started five years ago, says he’s “pretty happy with how things are going.” Looking ahead, his passion is “to find great music, interesting works, something with the right combination of drama and musicality,.” He plans a new production of Mascagni’s Ganetto for next June..