Medea continues ENO’s exploration of operatic masterpieces from the French baroque era. Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704) is best known for his often-performed Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) and for the Te Deum which furnishes the Eurovision theme tune. But from an early age, Charpentier was writing theatre music, especially incidental music for plays by the French dramatist Molière, for whose late play Le malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) he composed over an hour of music.
The monopoly enforced by Jean-Baptiste Lully meant that only after the Royal composer’s death could Charpentier progress from small works and divertissements to more substantial fare; this included operas for the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand and Medée (Medea, 1693), his only opera written for the Académie Royale de Musique, and set to a libretto by the dramatist Thomas Corneille, younger brother of the more famous Pierre.
Medea is regarded as of unrivalled importance in the history of French opera prior to the arrival of Rameau; it is a retelling of the Medea story from Classical antiquity, in which the vengeful sorceress exacts a terrible revenge on her lover Jason. Having fled to Corinth because of Medea’s crimes, Jason curries favour with King Creon’s daughter Creuse to ensure their continuing protection in Corinth; but he falls in love with her. Creon regards Jason as a more suitable match for his daughter than her betrothed, Oronte, and seeks to banish Medea from Corinth.
Medea forms an unholy alliance with Oronte; using witchcraft, she drives the king insane and conjures a poisoned robe for Creuse, who dies in Jason’s arms. As the palace collapses around them, Medea departs in a chariot pulled by dragons, telling him that she has killed their children.
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