Plot and Creation: Medea
The Play Medea by Euripides
The playwright Euripides was born around 485 BCE, some 20 years after the establishment of a democracy in Athens (507 BCE) and just in time for the heyday of ancient Greek theater. The earliest extant Greek tragedy—Aeschylus’s Persians—was written in 472, and by the time Euripides was a young man, the annual drama competition held in conjunction with the festival of Dionysus was one of the main events in Athens’s cultural calendar. Euripides competed in the event in 455, and although he won three times, it is an entertaining quirk of history that the year he submitted Medea, he placed third (and last).
To ancient Greek audiences, the most noticeable thing about Euripides’s plays was the colloquial quality of his writing. The language of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the two other leading tragedians of the age, was consistently elevated and poetic, but Euripides’s characters spoke like everyday people (while still observing the conventions of Greek scansion and poetry). Today, the notion of colloquial speech coming from the mouths of mythological characters may seem strange, but Greek viewers believed that these plays depicted real people and events. The events depicted in Medea, for instance, were thought to have taken place 600–700 years before the play was performed—the distant past, to be sure, but realistic, nevertheless.
Indeed, 21st-century audiences may be surprised by how non-mythological Medea’s story really is. While the events that precede the drama include a dragon (or giant snake), the pelt of a flying sheep, and teeth that turn into soldiers when planted, the events depicted in Euripides’s play are remarkably—and recognizably—human. Medea’s actions are defined by jealousy and rage, while Jason’s decisions reflect his lust for a new woman and a mercenary form of logic: When he marries the princess of Corinth, his children will attain royal status, which will offer them social standing and financial stability throughout their lives. Only two magical elements remain. One is the poison that Medea uses to kill Glauce, which causes the princess to burst into flame—although other versions of the story involve much less pyrotechnic forms of poison. The other is Medea’s final departure from Corinth, when Euripides depicts the sorceress flying away from the city. Today, it is up to directors of both Euripides’s play and Cherubini’s opera whether or not they feature this “deus ex machina” moment, or if they let Medea flee Corinth in a more mundane fashion.
Outside Creon’s palace, the day before Glauce’s wedding
Glauce, princess of Corinth, is preparing for her wedding to the hero Jason. Yet on a day when she should be filled with joy, her overarching emotion is that of fear: For years, Jason has been in a relationship with the sorceress Medea, the mother of his children. Glauce knows that Medea and Jason have a long and complicated history—the sorceress used her magic to help him steal the treasure known as the Golden Fleece, murdered her own brother and Jason’s uncle in her efforts to help him regain his throne, and ultimately accompanied him into exile in Corinth. Aware of this past, Glauce worries that Medea, who is still in love with Jason, may do something to stop the wedding. Jason promises Glauce that he no longer has any interest in Medea, and preparations for the wedding feast begin.
The celebrations are interrupted when Medea appears and demands that Jason return to her. Jason rejects Medea’s pleas, saying that he has chosen Glauce. Medea, hurt and enraged, curses Jason, calling on the gods of Olympus to help her take revenge.
A wing of Creon's palace
Medea is still burning with fury over Jason’s betrayal. Concerned by Medea’s obvious distress, Neris suggests that she leave Corinth. King Creon arrives, and he, too, asks Medea to leave the city. Medea pleads with Creon to be allowed just one more day with her children. When Creon agrees, she seems to calm down, and she even orders Neris to deliver a gown and crown as presents to the bride-to-be. As the wedding procession passes by, however, Medea expresses cruel wishes for the newlyweds.
Between Creon's palace and the temple
Medea greets her two children as a dark storm appears in the sky. Suddenly, cries of lamentation are heard from the palace: Medea’s presents were soaked in poison, and Glauce has died as a result. As an outraged crowd assembles, Medea, her children, and Neris escape and hide in a nearby temple. Yet Medea has something even worse in store.
When Medea and Neris finally emerge from the temple, the sorceress is holding a bloody knife. Thinking only of hurting Jason as much as possible, she has murdered her own sons. Jason, realizing what has happened, collapses in grief. Medea delivers a final curse, sets the temple on fire, and vanishes into thin air. Thunder roars and lightning flashes through the sky as the terrified crowd flees the blazing temple.
BCE A democracy is established in Athens, the capital of the Attic Empire. Over the following century, Athens will become a major intellectual center, and its annual drama competition will produce all of the ancient Greek tragedies we know today.
BCE Euripides submits his tragedy Medea to the drama competition. He comes in third (and last) place, after the playwrights Euphorion (son of the playwright Aeschylus) and Sophocles.
Luigi Cherubini is born in Florence. The tenth of 12 children, he receives his first music lessons at age six from his father, an assistant music director at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence.
Cherubini begins a three-year apprenticeship with the opera composer Giuseppe Sarti. His various tasks include writing arias for minor characters in Sarti’s operas.
Italian opera has long been a staple of musical life in London, and talented Italian composers are a valuable commodity in England’s capital. George Nassau Clavering-Cowper, an English nobleman in Florence, helps Cherubini secure a post at London’s King’s Th eatre, launching the young composer’s
Cherubini spends the summer in Paris, where he meets a number of writers and musicians and even makes the acquaintance of Marie Antoinette. He will relocate to Paris the following year.
With the financial backing of Louis XVI’s brother, the Count of Provence (later Louis XVIII), a group of French and Italian musicians found the Théâtre de Monsieur, dedicated to presenting Italian opera in Paris. (“Monsieur,” the title given to the king’s oldest brother, reflects the Count’s patronage.) Cherubini is hired as musical director.
Following the arrest of the French royal family, the Théâtre de Monsieur changes its name to the Théâtre Feydeau. Cherubini signs a contract with the company for two French-language operas per year.
This same year, Cherubini has his first international hit with Lodoïska, a satirical opera marketed as a “heroic comedy.” Audiences particularly enjoy the stage spectacle of the final scene, which features the conflagration of a castle where the evil Dourlinski has kept the hero, a young woman named Lodoïska, prisoner.
The Théâtre Feydeau falls on hard times. The theatre’s administrators disband the French-language troupe following poor reviews, and the Italian singers leave the country to escape the French Revolution. Cherubini, too, soon leaves Paris for Rouen.
Cherubini returns to Paris. The following year he is offered a job at the newly
Cherubini’s opera Médée, based on the ancient Greek myth, premieres at the
Cherubini travels to Vienna to conduct his own operas at the Habsburg court. A great admirer of Austria’s musicians, Cherubini brings an honorary medal from the Conservatoire for Franz Josef Haydn and attends the premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. (Beethoven, a great admirer of Cherubini’s, will later describe him as the world’s greatest living composer.)
Cherubini’s work also catches the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who hires him to organize and conduct a series of concerts at his residence in Vienna.
Cherubini returns to Paris, but a severe depression hampers his ability to write music. Instead, he spends his time studying botany and painting.
After a three-year hiatus, Cherubini is coaxed back into composition by a series of commissions from Napoleon: an opera for the French emperor’s private entertainment (1809), music for his marriage (1810), and celebratory music for the birth of his son (1811).
Napoleon abdicates, and Cherubini composes two works for festivities marking the return of Louis XVIII to the French throne.
Cherubini is appointed head of the royal chapel and turns his attention to composing primarily religious music for the next several years. In 1822, he is appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, a post that he holds until the end of his life, where he met a young Hector Berlioz, who was rather unfriendly toward the old Cherubini.
After more than half a century as a musical star in Paris, Cherubini dies on March 15.
Maria Callas, one of the 20th century’s most thrilling sopranos, sings the title role of Medea (in Italian translation) in Florence. After languishing in relative obscurity for a century and a half, the opera is suddenly back on the radar. Today, it remains an awe-inspiring vehicle for sopranos like Sondra Radvanovsky, who champion both Cherubini’s opera and the unforgettable antiheroine at its heart.