Médée (Cherubini)

Médée (French), or Medea (Italian, German, English), is an opéra-comique by Luigi Cherubini. The libretto by François-Benoît Hoffmann (Nicolas Étienne Framéry) was based on Euripides' tragedy of the same name and Pierre Corneille's play Médée.

The first version of the opera was in French and premiered on 13 March 1797 in Paris at the Théâtre Feydeau. At this world première, Médée met with a lukewarm reception and was not revived.

Performances and Versions

Several versions of the opera were produced and staged in Italian and German:

  • 1802: The Italian translation was premiered in Vienna on 6 November 1802.
  • 1809: The shortened version of the Italian translation was given in Vienna, where Cherubini produced a version which omitted some 500 bars of music
  • 1855: Franz Lachner's German version was given in Frankfurt. This was based on the shortened Vienna version, but with recitatives composed by Lachner which replaced the spoken dialogue.
  • 1865: The United Kingdom premiere was given in Italian at Her Majesty's Theatre on 6 June with recitatives by Luigi Arditi.

Twentieth Century revivals

The role of Médée is famed for its difficulty. Famous interpreters of the role in the 20th century included Maria Callas, Eileen Farrell, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Leonie Rysanek, Anja Silja, Maralin Niska, Marisa Galvany, Montserrat Caballé, Sylvia Sass, Shirley Verrett and, in the restored original-version, Phyllis Treigle.

  • 1909: The Italian translation of the Lachner version by Carlo Zangarini was prepared for its Italian premiere at the Teatro alla Scala, on 30 December 1909, and starred Ester Mazzoleni. It was this hybrid version that was revived in 1953 for Callas.
  • Callas Revivals (1953-1962)

Perhaps the most famous 20th-century revival of the work was in Florence in 1953, with Maria Callas in the title role, conducted by Vittorio Gui and staged by Margherita Wallmann. Callas learned and performed the role within a week, to critical acclaim. The production was so successful that the Teatro alla Scala decided to open the 1953 season with this opera, with Leonard Bernstein filling in for an indisposed Victor de Sabata.

Callas performed the role throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, with possibly the most famous production being by the Dallas Opera in 1958, conducted by Nicola Rescigno (with Jon Vickers as Jason) and directed by the Greek director Alexis Minotis. This production traveled to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London in 1959, and to La Scala (where a few minutes of it were filmed) in 1961-62. It was in these performances that Callas made her last appearances in Italy.

  • 1984 - 1996: Revivals of the original French version were given at the Buxton Festival on 28 July 1984; at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 6 November 1989; and at the Valle d'Itria Festival on 4 August 1995.
  • 1996: The shortened Vienna version was given in an English translation and sung in English by Opera North in Leeds in April 1996.
  • March 1997: A Bicentenial production by Opera Quotannis presented an unabridged (text and music) version (with a period-instrument orchestra) of the original opéra-comique at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, commemorating the bicentennial of the premiere. Bart Folse conducted Brian Morgan's stylized production, which featured Phyllis Treigle (in the title role), Carl Halvorson (as Jason), D'Anna Fortunato (as Néris), David Arnold (as Créon), Thaïs St Julien (as Dircé), and Jayne West and Andrea Matthews (as the Handmaidens of Dircé). Peter G. Davis, in New York magazine, wrote that "Opera Quotannis delivers Cherubini's Médée in all its original glory…. The occasion proved that the real Médée is indeed a masterpiece. Its weak sister, the doctored Medea we've been hearing all these years, should now be permanently set aside." Newport Classic subsequently recorded the production for Compact Discs.


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
13 March 1797
(Conductor: - )
Médée soprano Julie-Angélique Scio
Dircé, Créon's daughter soprano Rosine
Néris, Médée's servant mezzo-soprano Auvray
Jason tenor Pierre Gaveaux
King Créon bass Alexis Dessaules
Captain of the Guard Baritone Legrand
Two servants soprano and mezzo-soprano Verteuil, -
Two children silent roles
Chorus: Servants of Dircé, Argonauts, priests, warriors, people of Corinth


Place: Corinth


Act 1

Outside the palace of King Créon

Dircé is peparing for her wedding to Jason. However, with Médée's help, he had stolen the golden fleece and, in doing so, Médée had betrayed her family and established a relationship with him, the result of which was her two children. Although Jason had since abandoned Médée, she reappears and demands that he return to her. Jason refuses and Médée curses him, swearing vengeance.

Act 2

Inside the palace

Despairing, Médée is encouraged to leave the city by her servant, Néris. However, Créon appears and orders that Médée leave. She asks for one more day with her children and, after the king agrees, she appears to be calmer and gives Néris two wedding presents to take to her rival.

Act 3

Between the palace and the temple

Néris brings the two children out to where Médée is waiting. Sounds of lamentation are heard from within the palace and it is discovered that one of Médée's wedding presents has poisoned Dircé. An angry crowd gathers and Néris, Médée, and the children take refuge in the temple. The two women reappear with Médée grasping a blood-stained knife with which she has killed her two children. Jason dies and the temple, to which Médée returns, goes up in flames.

Selected recordings

Lachner Version, in Italian translation:

  • Callas, Scotto, Pirazzini, Picchi, Modesti; Serafin, 1957 (Ricordi/EMI)
  • Jones, Lorengar, Cossotto, Prevedi, Díaz; Gardelli, 1967 (Decca Records)
  • Sass, Kalmár, Takács, Luchetti, Kováts; Gardelli, 1977 (Hungaroton)

Original French Version:

  • Ciofi, Lombardo, Damonte, Courtis, Casucci; Fournillier, 1996 [live] (Nuova Era)
  • P.Treigle, St Julien, Fortunato, Halvorson, Arnold; Folse, 1997 (Newport Classic)

External links

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