The first entrance of the title character in Luigi Cherubini’s opera “Medea” is prolonged until we almost can’t take it anymore.
A snarling overture, a chorus of serving-women, a lively aria, a march, another chorus, another aria, a trio: Forty long minutes pass during which the audience knows that Medea is coming — and waits for her, and waits some more.
But when she finally shows up — the ultimate wedding crasher, arrived to take revenge on the man who betrayed her — there is little else in the rest of the opera except her. In few other works in the canon are all of the characters but one so negligible. “Norma” and “Elektra” have riches beyond their dominating protagonists; “Medea” is almost entirely Medea.
It rises or falls on the strength of its prima donna. So it is no surprise that the Metropolitan Opera’s impressive and enjoyable, if not quite crushing, first production of the work, which opened the company’s season on Tuesday, was anchored by an impressive and enjoyable, if not quite crushing, performance by the soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.
Giving her all in a writhing, high-note-hurling take on the spurned sorceress of Greek myth, pacing herself cannily and commanding at full cry, Radvanovsky would have deserved credit simply for showing up and taking on one of opera’s most daunting vocal and dramatic challenges. And one of its most daunting legacies: “Medea” is still defined by Maria Callas, who revived it to wild acclaim in the 1950s and whose slew of coruscating recordings of the piece have kept her unavoidable.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries there had been operatic depictions of formidable women scorned and abandoned: “Dido and Aeneas,” “Armide,” “Alcina.” But the early audiences at “Medea” — which premiered in 1797 in French, as “Médée,” but is today usually performed in Italian translation, as on Tuesday — would have had little preparation for the rawness of its intensity, particularly a final act that is essentially a brutal half-hour monologue, capped by a mother’s murder of her children.
Conducted at the Met by Carlo Rizzi and directed by David McVicar, the opera teeters on the blurry border between Classicism and Romanticism, with audible debts to Gluck’s musical purity and formality and to Mozart’s psychologically charged vitality.
The influence of “Medea,” in turn, can be heard in the fiery outbursts and discomfiting mad scenes in the bel canto works of the decades that followed — Rossini’s “Armida,” Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” Bellini’s “Norma” — and even beyond. (The thunderstorm in the beginning of Cherubini’s Act III rumbles, half a century later, into the end of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”)
This is a less momentous addition to the Met’s repertoire than Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opened the season last fall and was the company’s first opera by a Black composer. But “Medea” is a long-awaited premiere, and a sensible one: The Met has steadily been bringing in a range of works from the early 19th century, giving its audience the context to appreciate Cherubini’s score as an avatar of what was to come.
It fits with Radvanovsky’s long New York career, too. She has sung Anna Bolena and the other main soprano roles in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy at the Met, and in 2017 she opened the company’s season in a new production of “Norma,” directed by McVicar.
Her voice, which once had a chalky, loud, unwieldy starkness of tone that excited many listeners but turned off others, has mellowed in recent years. Even if her high register still soars out like a sudden foot on the gas, the different parts of her range now flow together more organically.
As her voice has grown more integrated, the spectacular effects of which it was once capable have faded a bit: Filament-thin, super-soft high notes out of nowhere, once an uncanny trademark, were not entirely secure on Tuesday in her recitative just before the aria “Dei tuoi figli.” But that difficult aria was a well-calibrated balance of quiet hurt and flashes of anger. In the final act Radvanovsky stalked the stage, her vibrato quivering angrily, with a slight sourness to her sound that fit the character; her low notes were meaty when she attacked them with gusto.
After a too-breathless overture, Rizzi — experienced and vibrant at the Met in the Italian repertory — settled into a performance responsive to both the score’s savage drama and its aching sentiment. The chorus sang with sober lucidity, and there was an excellent cast around Radvanovsky, including the tenor Matthew Polenzani, breezily arrogant as the fickle Giasone (Jason), who used Medea to help steal the Golden Fleece, married her, had children with her, and then dropped her.
The soprano Janai Brugger was tender as Giasone’s new bride, Glauce; the bass Michele Pertusi was solidly paternal as her father, Creonte; and, as Medea’s attendant, Neris, the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sang her big aria with sisterly warmth, accompanied by a rich-toned solo from the bassoonist Evan Epifanio.
This “Medea” is McVicar’s 12th — 12th! — staging for the company in a little over a decade, surpassing the 11 directed by Franco Zeffirelli from 1964 to 1998. And McVicar has a 13th, Umberto Giordano’s “Fedora,” coming on New Year’s Eve; surely it is past time for the Met to give other directors a chance in the slots that go endlessly to him.
“Medea” is in one of his favored aesthetic modes: gray, grim and effective. The set (designed by McVicar, and lit bleakly by Paule Constable) is dominated by the crumbling brick walls of Corinth, their gates here massive, tarnished gilt doors. When those slide open, a huge mirror looms at an angle over the playing space beyond, giving the audience a vivid, disorienting bird’s-eye view of the characters.
As is often the case with McVicar, we are in a vague, placeless Europe; maybe it’s around the turn of the 19th century, when the opera was composed, or maybe later. Some boisterous, somersaulting sailors feel like refugees from summer stock; S. Katy Tucker’s projections are sometimes evocative (the edge of the ocean’s tide, swirling storm clouds), and sometimes not (a burning temple with screen-saver flames).
Doey Lüthi has costumed Radvanovsky in an Alexander McQueen-esque feathered gown, raven-like, with stringy, matted hair. (Did Medea swim all the way to Corinth?) Wild-eyed, dragging herself around the ground like a beached mermaid and pawing at fellow singers and props alike, she certainly telegraphs ferocity. But Radvanovsky and McVicar’s conception of the role can sometimes seem so desperate to have that effect — to read as intense — that they stint Medea’s stature, her authority beyond her hysteria. (She is, after all, not just a sorceress, but also a princess.)
And McVicar interpolates a new final image: Having confronted Giasone with their dead children, Medea seems to have second thoughts, making gestures of teary regret over the bodies before lying down beside them to be engulfed by the flames.
This lowers rather than raises the emotional temperature. The work’s ending, as written, is Medea’s triumph, not her tragedy. That the triumph occurs in the wake of such horrific violence is what has always been so unsettling — even terrifying — about her story.
She is a survivor, more powerful at the close than ever. But McVicar and Radvanovsky are content to render her just one more operatic victim.
Through Oct. 28 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.