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SCRUTINY | Thrilling Medea Caps Canadian Opera Company’s Spring Season

By Joseph So on May 6, 2024

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Cherubini’s Medea (Photo: Chiara Isotton)
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Cherubini’s Medea (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Sondra Radvanovsky, sop. (Medea); Matthew Polenzani, ten. (Giasone); Alfred Walker, bbar. (Creonte); Janai Brugger, sop. (Glauce); Zoie Reams, mezz. (Neris); Alex Halliday, bbsr. (Captain); Charlotte Siegel, sop. (Handmaiden 1); Alex Hetherington, mezz. (Handmaiden 2) / Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Lorenzo Passerini, conductor / Four Seasons Centre, May 3, 2024. Repeats May 9, 11, 15 & 17; tickets here

The Canadian Opera Company saved its best for last in a thrilling COC premiere of a rarely performed opera, Cherubini’s Medea. This is a co-production shared by the Metropolitan Opera, Greek National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the COC. Based on the huge ovations from the virtually sold-out audience on opening night, Medea was an unqualified success, decidedly the biggest triumph of a season of many memorable moments.

Composed by Luigi Cherubini, Medée, originally in French, premiered in 1797 Paris. The work is now more typically performed in Italian translation. The plot is based on the famous Euripides’ play on the title character. In Greek mythology, Medea the sorceress helps Jason in search of the Golden Fleece. They marry and have two children. Jason later abandons her to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creonte. Medea takes revenge by killing the King, Jason’s bride, as well as her own two children.

Given this gruesome story, one would think Medea is the archetypal antiheroine, but she’s also portrayed as a victim, having been betrayed by Jason and others around her. It’s this ambivalence that makes Medea an interesting character, and Cherubini has composed great, very intensely beautiful music for her, to be sung by a dramatic soprano. Since Maria Callas had achieved legendary success with Medea in the 1950s, few sopranos these days would dare to take on this challenging role.

Sondra Radvonovsky as Medea (Photo: Marty Sohl, courtesy of Met Opera)
Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea (Photo: Marty Sohl, courtesy of Met Opera)

Well, the Callas legacy didn’t stop Sondra Radvanovsky, and for that we are grateful! Many of us, yours truly included, caught her when Medea was staged at the Met two seasons ago. I attended the Met Live in HD version, and I was struck by the handsome set and the artistry of Radvanovsky. But seeing it live at the Four Seasons Centre yesterday, it really brings home to me the saying that “you have to be there!” In person at the FSC, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the production, and most of all, by the galvanizing performance of Radvanosky in the title role.

She absolutely gave her all, throwing herself into the role, singing with a well gauged balance of abandonment and control, putting us on the edge of our seats with excitement, but never giving us the feeling that she might not make it. It was truly a performance for the ages. Joining her as a ringing toned Giasone was tenor Matthew Polenzani, returning to the COC after his wonderful Alfredo a couple of seasons ago.

Two principals making notable COC debuts were soprano Janai Brugger as a sympathetic Glauce, and mezzo Zoie Reams, excellent as the faithful maid Neris.

The David McVicar production is arguably the most sumptuous and opulent production seen at the COC in years. The gilded sliding panels, the gigantic, strategically angled mirror, the amazing projections, and the resplendent costumes all contributed to a feast for the eyes. The images in the Finale, with the mirror reflecting Medea and her two children slowly being engulfed by flames, will stay with me for a long time. Musically it was an exciting evening, with debuting Italian conductor Lorenzo Passerini leading the orchestra in a brisk and incisive reading of the score. The two hours of music went by in a flash,

One final note: While Radvanovsky’s Medea is not to be missed, I look forward to also hearing the alternate Medea of Italian soprano Chiara Isotton, a rising star in the opera world. Her exceptionally beautiful lirico-spinto voice garnered much praise for her recent Met debut as Fedora. Isotton will sing on May 15 and 17.

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Joseph So
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