The Witching Hour: “Numi, venite a me,” from Act III of Medea

An elaborate orchestral introduction sets up Medea’s appearance in Act III, after which a lengthy recitative and aria render the conflicted emotions the sorceress experiences as she considers taking her children’s life. In the recitative, as Medea vacillates between decisiveness and denial, Cherubini depicts her tormented feelings by transforming the orchestral and vocal parts to match her psychological state.

One of the most ingenious orchestral features in the recitative is Cherubini’s use of short, recurring musical motifs that symbolize characters or emotions in the drama. This compositional technique was common among opera composers of the 18th century, but in the 19th century, composers like Richard Wagner developed the process further into a more complex system of “leitmotifs,” which became a cornerstone of his compositional approach. Although Cherubini does not saturate the entire opera with an intricate motivic web, the way Wagner would have, he nonetheless employs a short, memorable theme that gives “voice” to the otherwise silent children. The children’s motif (reproduced here) is stated three times, each time climbing to a higher pitch, as though becoming more and more frightened.

Before Neris appears with the children, Medea, alone onstage, is determined to sacrifice them; her melodic lines are mostly stepwise and feature moderate leaps. But when she sees her sons, her motherly instinct sparks both doubt and fury: After the third statement of the children’s leitmotif, as Medea screams, “No, dear children, no!”, her voice performs one of the most dramatic ascending leaps in the opera, spanning more than an octave. At this moment, the orchestra features a tremolo on a diminished seventh chord—the most dissonant harmony in the compositional palette of the time, which composers and audiences associated with the devil due to its harsh and unstable sonority.

When Neris confronts Medea (“Can you really raise your hand against your own blood?”), the sorceress seems to come to her senses. This transformation is accompanied by a change in the orchestral texture: Instead of playing the abrupt instrumental interjections characteristic of recitatives, the orchestra repeats a series of steady chords, conveying Medea’s temporary feeling of calm. The aria that follows, however, reverses the emotional trajectory of the recitative. As she thinks about Jason, Medea’s momentary sanity evaporates, and she is left with fury, anguish, and an unrelenting desire for revenge.