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After his outstanding Macbeth in June 2010, the director Krzysztof Warlikowski is back at the Monnaie with Médée, the work that he directed for his explosive debut appearance with us in Spring, 2008. This revival will see the soprano Nadja Michael back in the title role and the tenor Kurt Streit as Jason. In coming back to Médée the Polish director will bring added nuances to his production in order to show how this story told by the Greeks over 2,500 years ago about a woman, in a foreign country abandoned and finally murdered, still resonates today.
When you decide to produce an opera what determines your choice? The subject matter? The text? The music?
The story and the music in equal measure. They are inseparable.
What made you want to put on this work by Cherubini?
The character of Medea is one of the most important figures in the history of theatre. Medea has travelled down through the ages and appeared in every art form: Greek theatre, many different versions of traditional theatre, and opera, throughout the 18th 19th and 20th century. Each century has presented its vision of Medea. That’s why I don’t want to restrict myself to just the character in Cherubini’s opera. I believe that the character in this opera distils all the other versions of Medea that we know in the theatre. Let’s say that every time we ask questions about Medea we move outside the framework of even an opera like Cherubini’s. We add something to it which is what I will do.
Will there be some changes from the 2008 production?
I am thinking about certain changes. I am currently working on the things I would like to modify but I think that the real changes will come when I set to work with the team and start rehearsing. There will be changes in the set and the costumes. Perhaps it is the character of Medea that will change the least.
You want to include some new spoken, contemporary dialogue, which will underline the topicality of this work. How do you intend to maintain the balance between the music of Cherubini, the sung text and these modern, spoken dialogues?
The sung text has a completely different dimension. The singing creates a space that separates it from the text. We are currently rewriting the spoken dialogue. It’s an additional element that will differentiate this production from that of three years ago.
You are very open to the influence of the cinema and literature. What were your main sources of inspiration for this production?
Of course there are the famous adaptations of the Greek texts. In this performance there is the influence of Pasolini, certainly, and Lars von Trier. But all the contemporary versions have interested me, particularly the Flemish version of the story by Tom Lanoye.
In 2008 you were inspired by the character of Amy Winehouse for your Medea. What is your vision of the character of Medea today?
It was perhaps the appearance of Amy Winehouse some time ago (this interview was conducted before the tragic death of the singer). I think that she showed something about women that we don’t always like: that independence, the contradictory appearance, over the top in relation to the masculine world. Therefore that was one particular angle. I didn’t really want to transform Medea into another character. But it was a strong image at the time that seemed relevant to the character. We also have to remember that Medea is an outsider where she lives. How can we show an outsider on stage? Of course mixed marriages are more commonplace today - we see them in France, in Belgium and practically all over Europe. We meet women, their children and their husbands descended from different European stock. These families are fairly common. Whilst avoiding obvious stereotypes, I have tried to show what can happen between a woman from far away and her man when their relationship starts to crumble. Everything that affects Medea is very strong, violent. Such despair. This story is still so powerful because of the basic element that it is about an outsider, and, in the play, she is the only outsider – pitted against the others.
Why, according to you, is the myth of Medea so close to us?
We can see this drama from the angle of a woman from another culture or in a more global perspective; then we see a man who abandons his wife but wants to keep his two children, and that resonates more closely with events of today. A news item where the final act of the drama sees a mother, desperate, after being abandoned by the husband she loves, fighting to keep her children as she knows she can’t live without them. At a certain point the only way out is for her to kill them. So, apart from the colourful side of a woman with many faces, a stranger, priestess, witch who comes from far away who cannot be understood, whose rules and principles of life are firmly rooted in another archaic culture, we can see the foreignness of Medea or just see her as a woman, like thousands of other women, abandoned and at the same time pushed to commit a crime.
How do you see the relationship between Medea and Jason?
I wonder if there is room for a relationship between these two characters. We don’t know if there is love. Be that as it may, I think that the life of a couple from different cultures is always a bit different to that of others. Mixed race couples have always lived on the edge of society. Therefore it is not only the relationship between Jason and Medea that we have to bear in mind, but also society’s condemnation of these couples which is still in evidence today. This is reflected in Fassbinder’s famous film Ali: Fear eats the Soul, in which we follow one of the most taboo relationships in German society: that of a much older German woman with a young Moroccan man. Their love is totally unacceptable in the eyes of society which condemns them out of hand without even considering that their relationship could be deep and meaningful, independent of his need to get his papers in order. This taboo still exists in spite of all the works of art, and all the films and all the literature etc.
How do you envisage this revival at the Monnaie?
Christopher Rousset and I are continuously listening to each other, trying to learn from one another and to tighten up the production from the point of view of the music, the story, the narration and the staging so that everything helps to move it along in the right direction. Of course, three years on, I can recognise a certain naivety in the original production, the naivety of that first look a while back. Now I am more mature, as is, without doubt, Nadja Michael who will come back to sing Medea after having sung the same role in a different opera, Giovanni Simone Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. I think she will bring with her a world three years on. It’s going to be very interesting. At last we come together again, after several years and with added experience, to do justice to this opera and with the desire to bring alive again a story which can sometimes appear too distant, too ancient, too enclosed in a traditional form because of a particular kind of theatre and opera.