Until today I knew Medea only from the Callas recordings, mainly the Dallas performance which is the only one in my collection, and it's been well over a decade since I last listened to the opera from beginning to end. I was only nine the year of that performance, Callas has been gone for 45 years, and I've been a "senior citizen" (or so I'm told) for some time now. All of which is to say that hearing Medea today was a fairly fresh experience.
It's easy to see why this opera, Cherubini's best-known, has been esteemed by other composers over the centuries. It's full of superbly dramatic music, and its title role is one of opera's great characters. I did note that, like many operas, it opens on a somewhat mundane note with a public ceremony, and despite knowing what excitement was to come I caught myself thinking that the music was pretty dull (after a strong overture). A first-rate soprano in the role of Glauce might rescue her unmemorable aria, but we didn't get that today. We didn't get an impressive bass as Creonte either; after listening to Chaliapin, Pasero and Pinza as Oroveso yesterday I realized, hearing an over-the-hill Michele Pertusi, that this is 2023, not 1923. Shucks.
My question, "Why Matthew Polenzani?", wasn't really answered. I was pleased that his sweet-toned tenor still seems in fine shape, and he used it with all the urgency and drama it was capable of. In fact I expected three ladies, a papier mache dragon, and a baritone carrying a birdcage to come to his aid at any moment. Medea could eat this Giasone for lunch, especially if she's as huge-voiced as Radvanovsky, the chandelier-rattling power of whose voice came across loud and clear today. It's a voice that's undoubtedly more loud than clear; its mouthy, occluded timbre somewhat gets in the way of her drawing the sharp, clear, classical lines that characterize Cherubini's style, even at its most dramatic (the ability to project high drama with classical clarity being one of the things that made Callas perfect for the role). I don't want to draw any more comparisons with a portrayal which will no doubt stand incomparable till the end of time, but I did feel that Radvanovsky inhabited the character effectively and left a powerful impression as she unleashed some killer high notes and rushed off at the end, leaving her children dead and everyone else horrified. Take that, Jason!
I suppose I should note that Neris's aria, with its beautiful bassoon obbligato, was competently sung by another of those modern singers whose vibrato tends to hog center stage.