mythological Greek sorceress, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, wife and ally of Jason of Iolcus, seeker of the Golden Fleece.
The character, already an ancient archetype by the time Euripides brought a particularly harrowing portion of her tale to the stage in 431 BCE, sent shockwaves through Classical Greece, tremors still felt in theatre and cinema today. Enchantress, mother, murderer, Medea, anti-hero and consciousness-raiser, epitomizes the complexity of the human condition, a figure of monstrous savagery and precarious vulnerability, loving and vicious, unstable and chillingly lucid.
M’dea Undone, a new opera by Canadian librettist Marjorie Chan and Scottish composer John Harris, while referencing Euripides’ searing tragedy in some considerable detail, albeit restyled, invoked only a dim echo of the play’s enduring universality. Despite an undeniable visual boost from its stylish, post-industrial venue, Tapestry Opera’s deconstructed one-act pastiche, unveiled at the City of Toronto’s repurposed Evergreen Brick Works, proved to be, not the sharp psycho-social dissection its title implied, but melodrama instead.
The mock documentary-flavoured adaptation took its narrative cues from today’s headlines. War, dirty politics, targeted killing, the familiar litany of ugly news stories made for a potentially compelling scenario.
M’dea and her husband Jason, a bold US tactical commander, have arrived in Washington following Jason’s tour of duty in M’dea’s ravaged desert homeland. Much has happened in the couple’s lives since first they met in a local market. Their son, Chase, has been born. M’dea, Jason’s former interpreter, shattered by the annihilation of her family and tribal village, is still struggling to settle into motherhood. Jason, grown distant and restless, has become increasingly self-obsessed. Enter the President to welcome Jason home. He and Jason instantly bond, kindred spirits, each driven by blind ambition. An election is looming. The country needs a hero. President Bob needs a running mate. His daughter Dahlia needs a virile distraction. Night after night, Jason and the President plan their campaign. Or so Jason insists. Late one evening, M’dea watches a live press conference on TV. The cameras catch Dahlia and Jason in an intimate, unguarded moment. Suddenly, M’dea understands. Her husband has betrayed her. America has turned its back on her. Following a bitter blow up with Jason at the White House, she and Dahlia confront each other face to face. Dahlia, slyly threatening to crush her rival under the weight of her father’s office, has two demands. M’dea will grant Jason sole custody of Chase. And then she will disappear. M’dea begs for one last night with the boy. Dahlia consents. The next morning, no one can find her. M’dea has stabbed the President’s daughter to death. Racing to the roof of their residence with Chase, M’dea screams a vow of revenge. Jason watches in horror below as she inches towards the edge, clutching their son tighter. Pause. M’dea takes another step.
The stage lights snap to black.
Leaving aside the issue of the contrived, annoyingly disingenuous ending, if, in fact, a looming deal-breaker of this magnitude can be ignored, M’dea Undone rippled with an equally unsatisfying mix of banality and cliché. The wartime refugee experience, born of terror and violence, blamelessness and desperation, must be chronicled, certainly. Inhumanity and suffering deserves to be exposed wherever and whenever it surfaces. Regrettably, playwright Marjorie Chan’s well-meaning libretto lacked sufficient depth to offer little more than the most superficial insights into the soul of the rootless and the displaced as personified by M’dea, a stranger in the home of the free. I see, I see, everyday I see!/Those eyes narrowed at me!, she agonized. A long downstage cross in front of the Brickworks’ bleachers, nervous gaze averted, utterly entranced, one of the few beats in her story director Tim Albery was able to play out in gripping close up. An endless stream of detached exposition and declamation made for shallow drama. My people’s freedom/This country took it all. Arguably true but random, sung-spoken sound bytes conferred little long term resonance. Physical opportunities for first-hand dramatic engagement, a glimpse into the implied hyper-stressed relationship of the President and M’dea in particular, went conspicuously unsourced. This was by far an opera of words rather than one of deeds, far too often stale and trite as the situations they linked to. One bedtime scene with lullaby was touching. Two bedtime scenes, the second sprinkled with baby talk, approached sugary sweet.
On the orchestral side of the operatic equation, composer John Harris’ amorphous, bitonal score stumbled from lights up to blackout on its way to nowhere. Unresolved themes abounded, admittedly a function of the form, at least in part. Stravinsky managed to employ the same technique to great effect. The problem here was Harris’ lack of edginess. Chromatic chord after chord, one sounding much like the last, was unleashed, blatantly forecasting the next moment of dramatic conflict. Interspersed with snatches of lacklustre, quasi Broadway show tunes, frequently overlaid with curious electronic white noise, M’dea Undone’s awkward soundscape offered meager thrills.
If libretto and music disappointed, Medea Undone’s musicans and cast most assuredly did not. A sparkling display of superb, intensely focused singing, supported by an excellent 7-player string ensemble conducted by Jordan de Souza, brought welcome uplift to the beleaguered production despite the obvious compositional challenges.
Mezzo Lauren Segal sang a M’dea of fierce, startling beauty, her vital, earthy tone erupting into bursts of vibrancy, passionate and primal, fiery and exciting. A frequent guest artist with the Canadian Opera Company, Segal daringly overturned conventional notions of technique, employing sharp breath breaks as gasps of dread, flashing back and forth between head and chest voice, eyes ablaze with pain and fury. An unsettling performance. And quite extraordinary.
Appearing as Jason, baritone Peter Barrett thoroughly embodied M’dea Undone’s heedless antagonist, his winning, richly appointed instrument reverberating with triumph, snarling with anger, whining with deceit, an utter master of parlando. Tenor James McLean was the President, hearty and powerful. Bombast never sounded more beguiling.
In a virtuoso performance dripping with luscious villainy, soprano Jacqueline Woodley as the President’s daughter sang with sleek finesse, all glossiness and artful malevolence to Segal’s rawness, civility and sophistication to Barrett’s simple charm. A detestable creature, self-seeking and manipulative, Woodley sculpted a venomous Dahlia, as dangerous as she was alluring.
First commissioned in 2009 by then Tapestry Opera workshop director Michael Patrick Albano as a single scene, long since deleted, the M’dea Undone that premiered last week, a product of relentless rewrites and revisions, felt weary and worn out. Somewhere, barely discernible under six long years of edits, polish and patching, lies the creators’ unspoilt vision. Judging from the remaining shadowy traces of originality, it very likely would have been a spellbinding show.