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Chiara Isotton as Medea in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Medea, 2024.Michael Cooper

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  • Title: Medea
  • Written by: Luigi Cherubini
  • Director: Sir David McVicar
  • Conductor: Lorenzo Passerini
  • Actors: Sondra Radvanovsky, Chiara Isotton, Matthew Polenzani, Alfred Walker, Janai Brugger, Zoie Reams
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To May 17

Some of the most memorable operas revolve around family drama.

Medea, written by Luigi Cherubini in the late 18th century, is based on the ancient Greek play by Euripides and the work of French playwright Pierre Corneille. The story involves the mythological hero Jason, who stole the golden fleece thanks to Medea, former princess from the kingdom of Colchis who is also a sorceress and possesses divine heritage; her grandfather is none other than the sun god, Helios.

The story has epic qualities and horrible details: Jason leaves Medea and takes their children to Corinth, planning to marry Glauce, daughter of King Creon; after pleading with Jason, Medea takes revenge by murdering both the bride-to-be and her own children. The opera, originally written in French, was later translated into German and Italian.

The current Italian-language staging at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto marks its Canadian premiere. A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera (where it was staged in 2022), Greek National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Canadian Opera Company, Medea is a work of unique emotional intensity and is here performed with guts and gusto, with Sir David McVicar’s production only partly effective in conveying the work’s inherent themes of prestige, power, responsibility and vulnerability.

The lead role is something of a Mount Olympus for sopranos, demanding extraordinarily high levels of intensity and vocal flexibility; Maria Callas was especially famed for her titular portrayal. At Sunday’s performance, COC general director Perryn Leech announced that soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, a famed contemporary interpreter of the role (she had previously performed it at the Met in 2022) was indisposed, and Chiara Isotton, already scheduled to sing the role on May 15 and 17, would be stepping in.

The Italian soprano, who has performed in stages across Europe (including at the famed Teatro alla Scala Milan) made her COC mainstage debut with a Medea infused with both theatrical intensity and precise if passionate vocality. Initially soft in her delivery at her entrance late in the first act, Isotton developed a full-bodied and deeply satisfying, richly rounded sound that was as colourful as it was controlled, with crisp diction and careful vibrato.

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The current Italian-language staging of Medea at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, Greek National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Canadian Opera Company.Michael Cooper

Isotton was complemented by an equally strong performance from American tenor Matthew Polenzani, with whom she shared a palpable onstage chemistry. Polenzani’s mellifluous tone, confident delivery and careful body language painted a fascinatingly fulsome portrait of Jason, suggesting a man who still has real feelings for his ex, but whose love of public adulation renders those feelings mute. The golden fleece, after all, represents authority, nobility, power and prestige; Jason is clearly in love with those things.

A short dance number in the first act (movement director Jo Meredith) conveys the fleece’s symbolic resonance within the world McVicar attempts to paint. Costume designer Doey Lüthi underlines the significance of this prestige through the use of an opulent, Regency-era aesthetic, lending the citizens of Corinth an air of old-world authority in contrast with Medea’s Edwardian-style black lace, pointing up her outsider status.

At one point, Medea even crawls in front of the nattily assembled crowd, like a beetle scuttling across the floor of a bakery – revelling in the fear she inspires. Scenes with the children’s nurse, Neris (lush-toned mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams), and King Creon (wonderfully intense bass-baritone Alfred Walker) are equally effective in conveying the multidimensional aspects of power and its exercise within Corinthian society.

The massive burnished-metal doors that constitute much of the set (designed by McVicar) convey a literal and figurative line of demarcation between the “in” crowd and everyone else. It is telling that the opera closes with Jason facing censure from all of Corinth, before their doors close against him, the vengeful Medea having forced herself into Corinthian society in the most horrific way imaginable.

Underlining the intimacy of a family drama within the epic nature of mythology (and vice-versa) is a large mirror angled upstage, and those two huge doors downstage. Both are visually impressive in their immensity if limited in their effectiveness at conveying the nature of the work’s intimate relating, with the mirror offering some pretty (arguably too pretty) imagery and diminishing the calibre of Medea’s final deed.

Likewise, the doors distract in framing scenes within Cherubini’s dramatically sprawling work, and their overuse runs the risk of inadvertent comedy. Their rapid shutting in the third act, when Polenzani was still singing, elicited titters from the Sunday audience.

Conductor Lorenzo Passerini inspired volume if not consistently emotional heft from the COC Orchestra, with Cherubini’s rich, tuneful scoring lacking a needed dramatic momentum. The effect was less that of falling off a cliff than being the unwitting witness to a nasty online exchange – but perhaps that’s a closer reflection of real family drama in the 21st century.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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