Ah, dove mi porti, sdegnato mio cor? (“Oh, where are you dragging me, my angry heart?”)

It is the ghastly inevitability of it all that most horrifies, the monstrous surrender of conscience to the Furies. Medea — outlier from a distant barbaric land, her otherness a prison, love a compulsion, memory a curse. Jason — esteemed of Hera, glory his destiny, virtue his plaything. So much daring, so much blood between them. A sea of treachery and deceit has brought her to the great barred gates of Corinth.

All in the city fear her power. Medea’s hunger for vengeance is not to be denied.

Concluding an enterprising 2023/24 season on a scorching high note, the Canadian Opera Company storms the Four Seasons Centre stage, launching a blazing, hypercharged Medea of explosive dimensions. A co-production of The Metropolitan Opera, Greek National Opera, COC and Lyric Opera of Chicago, director Sir David McVicar’s dazzling, excruciatingly tragic rendering of myth made mortal tears at the emotions — a sweeping panorama of societal turmoil, a razor sharp close-up of one woman’s pain.

Composed by peripatetic musical opportunist Luigi Cherubini, partnered by playwright François-Benoît Hoffman — text drawn from an earlier tragédie classique by dramatist Pierre Corneille — Médée/Medea made its first appearance on the pre-Romantic scene as opéra-comique in Paris in 1797 amid the lingering smoke and ash of the French Revolution. Centuries of compositional tinkering followed. A vastly shortened production, translated into German, made its way to Vienna in 1809, further renovated by composer/conductor Franz Lachner in 1855. Debuted in Frankfurt with sung recitatives replacing the original spoken dialogue, Lachner’s radical redesign became the basis, in turn, for poet Carlo Zangarini’s all-Italian rendition premiered at La Scala in 1909 — the version that still holds sway on most mainstages today.

Story, principally derived from Euripides, has undergone a somewhat similar process of evolution although the distance from formal Greek tragedy to Continental thriller tends not to be as vast as the span of two millennia that separates them might suggest. Narrative shifts are discrete but hugely consequential to Cherubini and McVicar both, impacting dramaturgy and production design with notable forcefulness.

Euripides’ Creonte, is strikingly at odds with Cherubini’s King of Corinth, the former depicting him as harsh and intractable in his determination to banish Medea, sorceress, foreigner, evil incarnate. Nowhere in the play does the anxious ruler vow, as does Cherubini’s moderately more humane monarch, to protect her two guiltless sons fathered by Jason. The consequences for Euripides are catastrophic.

A refugee from afar, isolated and abandoned, plagued by desperation, driven by an overpowering need to psychically annihilate her former partner, Medea seizes her one and only chance to take command of the future present. Her murder of her children is precipitated less by a savage victory won by inner demons, as Cherubini proposes, more as the result of an urgent existential threat — the wrathful citizens of Corinth blinded by paranoia, transformed into a mindless mob, Medea’s black magic unwittingly implicating the two young innocents in a vicious act of regicide.

This is not to say that Cherubini is entirely reluctant to assume a broader view of his tortured heroine’s anguish. Solo uno strazio regger non posso:/che ai figli s’apprenda d’odiare la madre. (“There is only one torment I cannot bear;/that they should teach my children to hate their mother.”), laments Medea, Creonte’s counsellors designated targets of collateral contempt.

Robespierre and The Reign of Terror live on in character and action, McVicar leaving no doubt as to theatrical correspondence, allegory vs history vs psychodrama.

Set in a hollow shattered realm, populated by a crowded assortment of edgy aristocrats, period-adorned in fitted waistcoats and trailing gowns and towering feather-festooned hair courtesy costume designer Doey Lüthi, our perspective dramatically skewed by a colossal mirror overhanging the stage, Medea plays out within the confines of the real and the reflected. A regal hall, a sacred temple, the infernal depths of the Underworld all vie for our attention. An air of exhausted splendour envelops everything. A set of monumental bronze gates, battered and corroded. A candlelit banquet, drunken Argonauts rough-housing on a long empty, seaweed-draped table. Blackened and crumbling masonry. Idle servants, uncomprehending courtiers.

The toxicity of Cherubini’s times is vividly evoked. Darkness and desolation breed despair.

Appearing in the title role on opening night, celebrated world soprano Sondra Radvanovsky conjures a Medea of searing ferocity tempered by a deep well of pathos. A singularly dynamic singer-actor frequently compared to Maria Callas, Radvanovsky more than justifies the tribute, her voice grown more burnished and golden, arguably richer and more dramatic than the silvery spinto of her Rusalka — another McVicar collaboration — last heard at the Four Seasons Centre in 2019. High notes flying — D# well within her reach — mezzo voce rock solid, her tireless vocal attack punctuated by moments of exquisite pianissimo, Radvanovsky is all conquering. Medea’s notorious high pressure operatic demands are dispatched with supreme confidence and dexterity. Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi/vinta e afflitta (“You see the mother of your children/Defeated and afflicted”), sings Radvanovsky, her rendering of Cherubini’s towering, desperate appeal for mercy concluding in an eruption of positively tectonic cheers and applause from the audience. A monumental offering of extraordinary proportions.

Visiting Met Opera headliner, tenor Matthew Polenzani, sings a striking, suitably duplicitous Jason, voice nimble and honeyed, stylistically charismatic, dramatically contemptible. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker delivers a stern, resonant Creonte. Soprano Janai Brugger is Glauce, daughter to the King of Corinth, Jason’s newest bride of convenience, shimmering, radiant, apprehensive. Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams contributes a fine Neris, Medea’s maidservant, vocally centred and assertive, nowhere more appealing than in her impassioned rendition of the composer’s stirring salute to abiding devotion, Medea, o Medea!/È tutta vinta e affranta! (“Medea, oh Medea!/She is quite overcome and broken!”). One of many heartfelt highlights of the evening.

The Canadian Opera Company Chorus soars. Jason and Glauce’s spectacular wedding scene, an arresting, extreme wide-angled tableau with its great ringing anthem, Dio dell’Amor! Deh, vien dal ciel! (“God of love, descend from Heaven!”), is nothing less than triumphant.

Viewed from a purely orchestral point of view, Medea occupies an awkward musical middleground between late 18th century Classicism and harmoniously updated 19th century Romanticism, neither identifiably Mozartian or early Beethoven or even Bellini-esque for that matter. Leading a particularly vibrant Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, conductor Lorenzo Passerini gives the historical patchwork that is Medea’s score more than a passing note of meaningful form and substance.

A production for now and forever. A superstar performance for all time.

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Italian soprano Chiara Isotton sings the principal role of Medea for the remainder of the run.