Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker


MEDEE - The Woman Who Killed For Love

Posted by leonardrosmarin on August 10, 2017 at 10:55 AM

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Marc-Antoine Charpentier's almost forgotten masterpiece Médée. In order to appreciate his incredibly beautiful music, we have to understand how Charpentier created this opera. We will look into specific creative musical strategies he used to charm and attract us. There is no magic here, but an impressive grasp of the human psyche and how it functions.

Why did Marc-Antoine Charpentier's first and only tragédie en musique, Médée, provoke such controversy in 1693? It ran for only ten performances, notwithstanding the fact that its portrayal of intense emotions, its presentation of vivid characters, and Charpentier's haunting music were praised by the most important art newspaper of the time, Le Mercure Galant. Even King Louis XIV made a rare journey from Versailles to Paris to see the production, and his nephew Philippe saw the opera at least twice. Each complimented both the composer, Charpentier, and the librettist Thomas Corneille. Despite such high praise from important quarters, the public's reaction to this opera was unenthusiastic. Consequently it was rapidly consigned to relative oblivion and languished in obscurity for a very long time.

The story of the sorceress Médée (or Medea in English) is multi-faceted, multi-layered, and pretty gruesome. This is perhaps what created so much controversy. Let me review her story for you very quickly. It comes with a warning. This is not for the faint of heart. But before I do, have you heard of the Argonauts lately? No, no, not the Toronto football team, something entirely different. The captain of the team in this opera was the handsome hero Jason. The Argonauts in his time were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis (modern day western Georgia) in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, named after its builder, Argus. Therefore, the "Argonauts" literally means "Argo sailors." By the way, the Golden Fleece has many interpretations:

It could mean the symbol of authority and royal power, or a book on alchemy, or a technique for writing in gold on parchment, or the forgiveness of God, a rain cloud, a land of golden rain, riches imported from the east, etc. No wonder Jason coveted it so much.

Médée, the powerful sorceress of Greek myth, betrays her country and her family in order to assist Jason, with whom she is desperately in love, in his quest for the famous Golden Fleece. She literally helps him fleece her father, King Aeetes of Pontus who had no intention of handing over the Golden Fleece, but pretended that he would do so if Jason successfully performed a series of dangerous tasks:

1. He was to yoke fire-breathing bulls to a plow

2. He was to sow a field with dragon's teeth, and then

3. Fight the armed warriors who grew from those teeth. In return for his promise to marry her, Médée gave Jason a magic ointment to protect him from the bulls' fiery breath, and told him how to confuse the warriors so that they would fight among themselves. Following Médée's instructions, Jason completed the three tasks successfully.

What happens next is NOT surprising... or is it? When Médée is no longer of use to him, Jason abandons her for a prestigious political marriage to King Créon's daughter, Créusa. In so doing, Jason has vastly underestimated Médée's power as well as her ferocious jealousy. She exacts a terrible vengeance that envelopes everyone closest to him.

But first a bit more background on the story: The librettist Thomas Corneille launches the action in the opera just after Médée has arrived in Corinth, after she and her family have fled Colchis for murdering her brother. The family seeks refuge with King Créon. In Corinth, Jason falls in love with Créon's daughter, Princess Créusa. Créon banishes Médée from Corinth, and promises asylum to Médée's children. He also promises his daughter Créusa in marriage to Jason.

When the curtain rises, Médée suspects Jason's disloyalty and confronts him, but Jason denies any betrayal. He requests of Médée that she offer an enchanted gown as a present for Créusa to thank her for taking care of their children while she will be in exile. But before Créusa receives the gift, Médée bewitches the robe and conjures up demons to torment Créon. This drives the king insane. Créusa begs Médée to save her father, but the sorceress does not yield. Créon commits suicide and Créusa dies from the poison in Médée's gown. In other versions of this tale, the gown ignites and burns Créusa to death. In a final act of jealous rage, Médée murders her two children and escapes on a dragon. Jason is left broken and alone.

Now for the fall-out after this opera was performed... The première of Médée unleashed hostility among musicians and intellectuals who venerated the composer of operas, Jean-Baptiste Lulli. He had reigned in France during the second part of the 17th century, and had invented what was called "la tragédie en musique." These admirers of Lully objected to what they perceived as Charpentier's anti-French musical features: excessive dissonances, complex characters and a tendency to subordinate the text to musical effects. The critics, then, maligned the elements within Charpentier's opera that seemed to break with Lully's conventions. They refused to recognize and appreciate his assertion of an original musical style.

Lully's approach to opera was far more sedate. He had developed a style that emphasized the importance of the French language. His harmonies and melodies illustrated the principles of clarity, stability and decorum. According to these principles, Good must triumph over Evil, Kings must behave bravely, and most importantly, Love must conquer all. Now Charpentier's opera Médée breaks all of these rules:

Médéee destroys not only her rival, Créusa, but also the King and her husband, Jason. Jason and Créon act selfishly and in a cowardly fashion. Love causes only pain and suffering. Médée's music, especially in her arias, is as unstable as her situation. Her music is fraught with dissonances and vigorous expressiveness rather than following a straightforward cadential progression and clear rhythmic declamation. No wonder Lully's admirers were so upset!

Just to give you an example of the originality of their endeavour, Charpentier and Corneille fused internal musical and dramatic structures to generate a terrific dramatic impact. This characteristic is especially evident in Médée's arias.

These pieces occur at moments of heightened dramatic tension and employ musical rhetoric to enlist the audience's sympathies. Médée's arias chart her character's inner struggles. They make her downfall more tragic by highlighting her qualities of love, compassion and sincerity, rather than concentrating exclusively on her supernatural powers and sinister malevolence.

Charpentier gave Médée a progressive musical language that provides for an emotionally complex interpretation of her character. He used elements of musical style that Lully loyalists vilified: dissonance, melodies that obscure the text, and ambiguity in the musical form. All of these were designed to make Médée seem more sympathetic and tragic.

So what kind of a heroine is she? Médée is one of the most complex female characters to have ever appeared on the stage. Thomas Corneille drew from a number of sources, including the tragedies of Euripides, Seneca, and of his brother, Pierre Corneille. This resulted in the portrayal of a tormented personality in Charpentier's opera. Each of these authors treats the most violent and tragic episodes in Médée's life by focusing on her sorcery, the horrible deaths she inflicts on Créon and Créusa, and her acts of infanticide. Bloodshed, adultery and revenge saturate Thomas Corneille's sources. As you can well imagine, this is the stuff of theatrical excitement. Charpentier and Corneille dwell rather on Médée's persecution and her ultimate downfall, thereby creating a heroine who is not only a victim of the dark underside of her own nature but of circumstances and the actions of others.

As an outcast, Charpentier's Médée struggles to find her place in a society that condemns her. This struggle between her various roles as a wife, mother and sorceress makes for a fascinating personality that is reflected in both text and music. Médée becomes a tragic heroine to the extent that she is goaded by forces that ultimately destroy her. It is her transformation from a vulnerable human being into a vengeance-crazed monster that sustains the dramatic tension and ultimately drives the drama to its horrific conclusion.

The emotional power of the tragedy comes from the plight of a woman who is dominated by her destructive rage while believing that she is directing it. Yet she remains sympathetic to the extent that she has vulnerability, wants to belong to the human condition but, when repulsed, falls prey to the evil forces within her. This is how Thomas Corneille and Marc-Antoine Charpentier as well as Euripides see her.

In Pre-Euripidean versions of the myth, Medea was viewed not as a sorceress but as a woman with human powers. She was an innocent bystander rather than a vengeful witch, who witnessed her children's deaths rather than committing infanticide. Euripides created a balanced portrait of Médea by depicting her as an agent of both good and evil, simultaneously worthy of our pity and inspiring horror.

Charpentier's music gives life and distinctiveness to Médée; he distinguishes her from her opponents through her music which teams with dissonant harmonies, organic musical gestures and melodies that highlight the importance of her music rather than the words accompanying them. I will analyze briefly two of Médée's arias to illustrate the innovations in Charpentier's musical style as they related to character development and dramatic form.

In Act II, Médée sings her most dramatically charged scene, lamenting her exile and her loss of Jason: "Princesse, c'est sur vous que je me fonde." (Princess, I appeal to you) This aria emphasizes musical over textual expression, thus embodying the different dramatic conceptions of Charpentier and Lully.

Charpentier provides barely an introduction to Médée's heartfelt plea. The piece opens with only three beats in the orchestra to set the tone. Her entrance garners sympathy through its intimate display of emotion, as if she cannot restrain her feelings, exposing her tenderness as well as her sincerity.

The lack of a firm structure to undergird the words and music reflects the turbulence in Médée's heart. She pours out her thoughts as they rush through her mind. Charpentier stimulates his audiences through harmony and orchestration. He builds up tension by juxtaposing keys and staggering instrumental accompaniment entrances while sustaining an atmosphere of pathos and remorse. Throughout the aria the orchestra moves through the vocal cadences immediately in order to set up the next key for the next vocal entrance. This technique underscores the continuous tension between the vocal line and the orchestra that accompanies it. Cadences are fleeting, which undermines any sense of a long-range tonal plan. Each vocal phrase begins in one key but cadences follow in another key, and consequently reflect the instability of the situation and of the heroine.

Although the music is based in G minor and its related keys, Charpentier highlights MAJOR keys during the heightened dramatic moments. Charpentier's treatment of keys in this scene is clearly as unstable as Médée's own feeling towards Jason, their children and her situation.

Although the overall progression of this aria is not chromatic, the frequency of modulations through so many different keys as well as the lack of musical repetition emphasize unpredictability, the musical equivalent of dramatic ambivalence and uncertainty. This aria is Médée's final appearance in Act II; it suspends any resolution of her situation. Moreover, we, the audience, hear of Médée's sorcery only through other characters who clearly despise her. This aria illustrates Médée's sincerity and her love for her children, although possibly hinting at conflicts to come.

Her next great aria occurs in Act III, Scene 3. This is the heart of the opera: "Quel prix de mon amour" (What price have I paid for my love). In this soliloquy, Médée is alone on stage and expresses her grief without restraint. Médée returns to the opening lines of the text as to a musical and emotional anchor, thus providing Charpentier with the opportunity of using it as a refrain. The repetitions of "Quel prix de mon amour" divide the soliloquy into sections, and Charpentier sets each one up differently in order to highlight Médée's conflicting emotions. The piece is fully scored, with five part strings (as in Lully's operas), although here all orchestral parts are marked "sourdine" (muted), and the muting of the strings lends an air of mystery before Médée starts to sing.

In this aria "Quel prix de mon amour," Charpentier plays with musical expectations of tension and release in a battle between minor and major keys, which reflects Médée's own battle with self-identity and underscores again the dramatic tensions of uncertainty and anticipation present throughout the opera. As Médée continues to struggle with her own feelings of love and betrayal, the home key changes between major and minor, as if the orchestral harmonies were encompassing both sides of her consciousness: her decency on the one hand, and her vengeful fury on the other.

In the first statement of "Quel prix", Charpentier represents Médée's longing and her immense effort to control her emotions by composing heart-wrenching 9-8 suspensions, short musical delays lasting a full measure. The 9-8 suspensions provide harmonic color for the word "amour" but the effect continues beyond word painting. The delayed resolution of the G minor ninth chord until the next measure underlines Médée's extensive suffering that still has no resolution. When the chord resolves deceptively to a minor triad on E and then moves directly to another suspension, Médée's suffering appears tangible..

This carefully crafted, dissonant harmonic progression, which lasts almost entirely throughout her lines "Quel prix de mon amour/Quel fruit de mes forfaits" ("This is the price of my love, these are the fruits of my crimes!) signifies Médée's inability to reconcile her feeling for Jason and her suffering. Médée is lost in expressive dissonance. The first repetition of "Quel prix" is similar to the first statement, but Charpentier again plays with tensions of dramatic and musical expectations.

Rather than the resolution to D minor as before, the orchestra plays a D major chord. Even though the D major resolution lasts only for a bar, the subtle harmonic difference lends fleeting relief to the melancholic mood of the aria and makes us wonder: Does Médée now feel hope? or are we to interpret it simply as a fragile respite in her destructive fury that will explode at the end of the opera?

These questions arise again during the final repetition of "Quel prix." Here Médée's torment is at its height, and the melodic changes in her vocal line reflect her desperation. This time, Médée begins "Quel prix" on its original note, but immediately the intensity of her emotions carries her to a new melody. Charpentier extends this passage by repeating "Quel prix" in a rising sequence that stresses the turbulence in Médée's soul. The battle to control her feelings becomes most apparent on her final note, which begins on a D minor chord and immediately changes to D major as the orchestra proceeds to the final cadence.

The subtle conflict between major and minor provides an evanescent glimmer of hope at the end of the aria that Médée will perhaps not seek vengeance. The nobility of her anguish is evident in the special treatment that Charpentier reserves for this piece. "Quel prix de mon amour" becomes the centerpiece of the opera, and despite the devastating ending expected by the audience, Charpentier imbues his heroine with a vulnerability and anguish that elicit the audience's compasion. For Charpentier, drama resides in the development of Médée instead of in the evocation of her supernatural powers as in Lully's work.

Thus Charpentier's innovative musical language breaks with Lully's conventions for the tragédie en musique, both in style and content. It adumbrates the direction in which French opera would go in the 18th century.

But however interesting these changes are from the point of view of musical history, the relevance of Médée cannot be denied in our own 21st century. Charpentier's opera can still move us today because it presents Médée as a woman whose suffering is timeless. Whether in 17th century Paris or Toronto in 2017, Médée's power lies in her ability to speak to her audience as a tormented woman retelling her tragic yet familiar story.

By Leonard Rosmarin

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