Opéra in three acts (1797)

Music by

Luigi Cherubini

Text by

François-Benoît Hoffman

Medea is an ancient myth that is remarkably topical. The protagonist comes from the periphery of the known world and is a visible stranger in a civilised country; she disturbs peace and order, and becomes a hateful, avenging angel of death and destruction. Since the period of the ancient tragic poets, the material of Medea, Jason, and the Golden Fleece has often been staged in both opera houses and theatres alike, including around 1800 in Paris.

The native Florentine Luigi Cherubini came to the French metropolis in the 1780s to make his mark as an operatic composer. With his »Medée« of 1797, he achieved considerable success, which carried over into the following century. The dramatic intensification of Maria Callas’ performance in the 1950s brought new attention to the work. Cherubini, who remained in Paris and became one of the most prominent composers of his time, was inspired by the ancient tragic operas written by Gluck to create this work of profound seriousness and epic expression. The opera features significant scenes for the protagonist, skilfully composed choral and ensemble movements, and atmospheric introductions to each of the three acts. However, once Medea appears, the eponymous heroine takes centre stage as a captivating presence.




Prior story
Jason set off with the Argonauts (a group of comrades named after his ship) to purloin the Golden Fleece in Colchis on the Black Sea. His step-uncle Pelias promised to vacate the throne of Iolcos – which was rightfully Jason’s – in his favor only in the (unlikely) chance of Jason’s success. Once in Colchis, Jason and the king’s daughter Médée fell in love with one another. With Médée’s help, Jason was able to pilfer the fleece from her father’s possessions. Their joint flight would have failed if Médée had not killed her younger brother and dismembered the corpse, forcing their pursuers to collect the body parts, thus allowing them to flee to safety. Once back in Greece, Jason learned that Pelias has driven his father to his death by telling him the lie that the Argo had sunk. To punish Pelias, Médée then tricked his daughter into killing and boiling him, claiming that it would rejuvenate him. Pursued by Acastus, the son of Pelias, the homeless couple fled across Greece, now with two children in tow. During their flight, the parents were separated: the father reached Corinth with his two sons, where he was offered the possibility of marrying into the royal house.

Act One
Dircé, the daughter of the King of Corinth, fears that Jason might leave her one day, just as he abandoned his first wife Médée. Dircé’s attendants try to cheer up the young bride. Her father Créon insures Jason that he will protect his sons and by no means to surrender them to Acastus who – after Médée’s disappearance—wants to avenge Pelias’s death against them. Jason has his Argonauts march and presents the bridal gift to Créon: the Golden Fleece. Dircé interrupts the ceremony, afraid of the injustice that was done to Médée and her possible revenge. To calm her, Jason promises eternal fidelity. While Créon beseeches the gods to bless the couple, a stranger appears: it is Médée. Calmly and decisively, she declares that she will prevent Jason’s adulterous marriage. But it is only when Créon curses her and threatens to hand him over to Acastus that Médée warns against provoking her. She promises Créon hellish penalties, but first withdraws.

Médée reminds Jason that he owes his victories to the same crimes and sacrifices that she is now ostracized for. She pleads with him not to reject “the mother of his sons,” but to no avail. When he refuses all responsibility for her and her deeds, she calls on him to choose between her love or her animosity. The argument escalates: both threaten to kill one another. In brief moments to take a breath, she is gripped by the memory of all the blood that was spilt over the Golden Fleece – and still will be, as only Médée suspects.

Act Two
Médée is furious: she has been forbidden all contact with her sons. Créon appears with his soldiers: in response to Jason’s request, he offers her the chance to flee unharmed and promises to protect her children. Médée humbly begs to be tolerated in Corinth, but is rejected. When she calls on Zeus to witness the injustice being done to her, Médée’s confidant Néris warns her to be cautious. Médée now declares that she will accept the King’s decree. She only asks one day of delay. She allays Créon’s mistrust by insisting on her utter helplessness. After Créon’s departure, Néris swears to be faithful to her Médée to the point of death, while Médée is lost in dark brooding. She now comes up with the plan that horrifies even her: to take revenge Jason’s betrayal not only by killing his wife, but his sons as well.

Jason appears to offer in his “generosity” – as he calls it – support in exile. Médée declares that her resistance is now broken. Jason rejects her request that the children accompany her into exile because of his great love of both. Jason responds to Médée’s lament by allowing her to have contact with her children once more before her departure. Médée has in secret decided to have him pay for her “false tears.”

Jason rushes off to a ceremony in which he is to beseech the gods to favor his wedding for Dircé. Médée commands Néris to accompany her two sons to Dircé. They are to offer

Médée’s former bridal dress and her bridal crown as gifts, poisoned gifts that are to kill the new bride. The wedding procession arrives at the temple. The festive songs are commented upon bitterly and cynically by Médée. She also calls to the god of marriage Hymen, but now to take vengeance for her betrayed marriage.

Act Three
Néris has set off with the children and the deadly gifts. A storm erupts. Médée has armed herself with a dagger and admonishes herself to be relentless. But when her children return, she is unable to carry out her intended murder. The dagger falls from her hands. Her rage against Jason and the love of her children are tearing her apart. She orders Néris to bring her children to safety from her. But just as Néris departs with them, Médée regrets her failure to carry out this ultimate punishment of Jason. Then cries of horror and Jason’s mourning of the torturous death of Dircé, which has also killed Créon as well, come to her ear.

Médée picks up the dagger and follows Néris and her children. Jason and the people want to punish Médée. Médée tells Jason that her children have been murdered and, declaring that she will wait for him in hell, leaps into the flames now raging in Créon’s palace.

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