3 min

The bitch is back

Consuming vengeance makes an awesome spectacle

Credit: Xtra files

From Diana Rigg raging over the din of collapsing temple walls on Broadway to wailing drag queens on the rooftop of the Club Toronto bathhouse during a lightning storm, the mythical figure of Medea continues to fascinate as much as she repels.

Medea is the sorceress of Greek legend who betrays family and countrymen to help her lover Jason steal the Golden Fleece. When he spurns her for another, she turns murderously mad – even killing their two children.

Toronto audiences get to see the first-ever North American production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s baroque opera Médée, which premiered at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1693 (a few years after the death of the monopolizing court composer and homosexual Jean-Baptiste Lully).

In the new Opera Atelier production opening this week, Canadian bass Alain Coulombe sings the role of Créon, the Corinthian king who makes the tragic mistake of conspiring against Médée, thinking he can force her to leave his land and manipulate events so that his daughter Créuse can marry Médée’s husband, the dashing Argo hero Jason.

“I knew Charpentier’s sacred music but wasn’t familiar with his opera,” says Coulombe. “This is a big masterpiece, a passionate love story entwined with jealousy, revenge, killing.

“The music is not naked and basic like some baroque pieces. It’s more like classic modern opera, it has a bigger orchestra with greater orchestral colouring. The sound is more grandiose and asks for bigger singing. There are beautiful arias and melodies.”

Hervé Niquet conducts the Tafelmusik orchestra and chamber choir; director Marshall Pynkoski, choreographer Jeannette Zingg, set designer Gerard Gauci and costume designer Dora Rust-D’Eye will surely deliver the inimitable spectacle expected from Opera Atelier.

Rising star, US mezzo Steph-anie Novacek, sings the title role. “Médée knows everything, even at the start, but she tries to hold on to her human side,” says Novacek. As the various cospiracies become too obvious to ignore, “she moves toward becoming this monstrous sorceress…. By the end of act three, she goes crazy and it demands a really big voice. Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming.”

Pynkoski spotted Novacek seven years ago and knew he wanted her for the role – even before Médée was on the books. The Iowa native has since performed in OA’s Orféo and Poppea. Novacek says she loves opera because it allows her to explore her psyche in preparation for developing different characters. She’s had to be careful, however, with such a horrible creature like Médée. “I have to make a concerted effort to leave her behind in the rehearsal room,” she says with a laugh.

Charpentier’s opera spends more time exploring Médée’s humanness as compared to Luigi Cherubini’s Médée, the more familiar 18th century opera. “Aphrodite has cast a spell on her, that’s why Médée’s so consumed by love for Jason. But the most tender, humane moments are with her confidant, Nérine.”

How do you make the emotional journey from tender friend and lover to pure vengeful energy? “The libretto is wonderful and the score is brilliant. The music makes sense of everything,” says Novarek.

Coulombe is also keyed up by his character, the bold leader Créon. “His passion excites me, he has so much ambition and not always in a good way. He’ll manipulate others to get what he wants.” Créon becomes one of the first victims of an increasingly dangerous Médée. “I go from this authority figure, very proud, to being angry, then scared, then raving mad.”

It, too, is a challenging role. “That’s the mystery of the art – to find a way to express all these things without losing control of the voice.”

Coulombe has a great season ahead of him, with a series of challenging roles including Count Ribbing in the COC’s A Masked Ball and Collatinus in L’Opéra de Montréal’s The Rape Of Lucretia.

But for now, Coulombe is gearing up for his deadly battle with one of the scariest female characters in art. With its libretto by Thomas Corneille, one of the leading playwrights of his era, Médée is an intriguing study in hubris – Jason, Créon, Créuse and Médée all plot to get what they want. “It’s a power play in every single way,” says Coulombe. “It’s about the power of hatred. It’s so actual – how the world is now – where the never-ending desire to win leads to total destruction.”


$25-$99. 7:30pm.

Fri, Nov 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, & 9.

3pm. Sun, Nov 10.

The Elgin. 189 Yonge St.

(416) 872-5555.