“Nothing is as formidable as the anger of a woman scorned”. The chorus singers sang the famous line sympathetically before dunking the fuming Medee under water until she calmed down. Darius Milhaud’s 1938 opera Medee was given a gripping Australian premiere by Lost & Found Opera at the Fremantle Arts Centre on Wednesday night.
Medee family portrait. Image by Grant Taylor
This is the fourth production by the company who specialise in presenting unfamiliar operas in unusual settings. Medee, based on Euripides’ tragedy Medea, was set in rooms that were previously mental asylum cells for women, giving deeper resonance to the conflicted state of the heroine. The princess Medee is betrayed by her husband Jason’s marriage to Creuse the daughter of the ruler Creon and undertakes revenge.
In the hands of director Thomas de Mallet Burgess the patriarchal Greek society was in disarray and Medee existed within it as a powerful and subversive foreigner. Matthew McVeigh’s set reflected the dysfunction: a chandelier dangled sideways; a golden curtain was dropped to reveal graffiti painted walls; Jason and his bride arrived drunk from their wedding ceremony and the maids emerged from under the table to wait on them.
In an adjoining room Chris van Tuinen (piano) Katie McKay (violin) and Ashley Smith (clarinet) performed a reduced but dramatic version of Milhaud’s score. The composer’s distinctive polytonality suited the conflicted nature of Medee; the clash of key signatures mirrored the multiple strands of thought in her mind.
In total the performance space was not much larger than a lounge room. But with a cast of impressive actor singers the horror unfolded around the small capacity audience with greater impact than the most elaborate home entertainment system.
Jason was sung by Richard Symons whose striking vocal range create a tortured, youthful figure. Creuse was given flighty innocence by Katja Webb singing with velvet sweetness. Creon was a stern Simon Meadows and Ileana Rinaldi was a sympathetic nurse. The chorus ensemble, for which Milhaud reserved some of his most pleasant harmonies, was immaculately sung by Kris Bowtell, Bonnie de la Hunty and Amy Yarham. Isuelt de Mallet Burgess and Beatrice de Mallet Burgess wore bird masks as they chillingly enacted the non-singing role of Medee’s daughters. Fiona McAndrew gave a deeply-inflected performance of Medee, depicting Queenly poise and deranged witch with a hint of celtic priestess in her tangled curls and flowing skirts.
Yes it was sickening watching a woman being pinned down and dunked and to hear her resolve to murder her children, ‘the last remnant of our love’. But in McAndrew’s hands Medee’s struggle between love and hate was also compelling. And perhaps familiar too, because this Greek tragedy plays out persuasively the power battle that marriages have been experiencing for centuries. The production continues until May 24 and shouldn’t be missed.