Even among contemporaries, it received the highest praise: Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s »Médée« is undoubtedly the work after Lully’s death — the founder of French opera during the era of the Sun King — that shows outstanding mastery.

Much can be learned about the art of composition, the interaction of text and music, and the visualisation of a multifaceted tragic event, whose magnitude and power touches the audience. Charpentier’s opera is unique in its combination of French classicism and Italian melodic beauty, and exceptional in its richness of expression and timbre. Every character is sharply drawn, as is the drama itself, staged by Peter Sellars. A bridge is built from mythical times to the present, underlining once again the relevance and continuing impact of ancient Greek mythology in the present day.





The opera begins with a chorus in praise of the King, who has launched many wars because he is trying to bring peace to the world. The people pray for a giant cloud to descend and reveal their destiny. Victory, in the guise of the King’s daughter, Créuse, steps from the cloud to offer her love to the hero Jason, who has triumphantly brought the Golden Fleece to their country. A brief dance of melancholy and national mourning is followed by a fun explosion of sexual liberation. Jason sings an irresistible little song admitting that when a man is in his prime he should feel free to change partners.


Medea and her children are being held in a detention center, awaiting an imminent deportation order. Meanwhile her husband Jason has formed a romantic alliance with the King’s daughter, Créuse, who also offers to take care of the children. Medea is hurt and humiliated, separated from her children, and publicly separated from Jason, the only man she has ever loved. Her confidante Nérine advises Medea to be silent. Women have always had to be silent. The best revenge is silent. Créuse is attracted to Medea’s unusual and radiant yellow dress. Medea received it as a gift from her father, the Sun. Now Jason must ask Medea if she would make a gift of her dress to his new girlfriend. It’s an awkward moment. Medea says, ‘Sure’.

Jason has to explain to his kids that the problem is that too many people love him. His adjutant Arcas whispers to Jason to move carefully. Medea is capable of terrible retribution. But Jason is tired of being a hero. ‘What has Glory done for me?’ he asks himself. The public is anxious about the impending war. The presence of Jason on their side lessens their alarm. The King desperately needs the charismatic, telegenic Jason to stay and help the country win the war. Jason will stay if he can have Créuse. But now one of the King’s coalition partners, the famous hero Oronte, also has eyes for Créuse and is also essential for the war effort. Privately, the King tells Jason to continue making out with Créuse. But he also needs Jason and Oronte to be friends and comrades in arms. As usual when there are this many lies in the air, these men, who already know that all of their lies are doomed, must resort to the major diversion strategy and profiteering opportunity of drumming up the next war. Riding on his missile launcher, Oronte sings ‘The most powerful force in the world is love’.


The King needs Medea to leave the country immediately. Even though she has not broken the law, like most immigrants, her very presence fills the population with anxiety and dread. But Medea will only leave with Jason. The King and Medea are surprised to find themselves singing a wrenching duet as they each picture their abandonment by Jason. Medea’s crime was that she used her magic powers to destroy people, including her own brother, to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece. She committed those crimes out of love for Jason. The King quickly silences Medea and publically announces that she will be deported within twenty-four hours. As she is dragged back into her isolation cell, Medea asks Créuse to care for her children.

Créuse thanks her father for setting her up with Jason, the lover of her dreams. Then when Jason arrives, she is on edge. He has a terrible reputation and all of it is true. She needs to test him before she can say yes. Across two love duets, they hesitate, resist, touch, and then hold each other. It is a deeply wonderful feeling to be loved. Oronte arrives at exactly the wrong moment and is instantly jealous and hurt. He pours out his love to Créuse. She answers him with miraculous tenderness and generosity, telling Oronte beautifully and with deep care that she does not love him. The chorus is astonished by her kindness and offers their condolences to Oronte, the unhappy lover, and their congratulations to Jason. Love herself appears from above and lets Créuse and Jason know that they don’t need to hide their love. Oronte sees a vision of the universe filled with lovers in chains. The trio of Love, Créuse and Jason sing with tender melancholy ‘Lovers, wear your chains with joy’.


Oronte is now in solidarity with Medea: they both want Jason to leave the country. But Medea also forces Oronte to face reality. Créuse does not love him, and more seriously for Medea, it looks like Créuse’s love for Jason is genuine. ‘Who would have believed’, they sing together, ‘that the pure fire of my love would be repaid with criminal ingratitude’. Then Medea sees Jason. She needs to be alone with him. Jason has convinced the King to deport Medea within the hour; he arrives at her cell for the final ‘exit interview’, his mind made up, his heart deaf to her entreaties. When she sings of how deeply she wants to believe the lies he tells her, it breaks his heart. He leaves her.

Alone in her cell, Medea asks herself about the actual cost of her love. The calculation is devastating and clear. As her pain increases, she finally summons her magic powers, explodes her cell and incinerates the prison. She calls on black feminine deities from all worlds to liberate all prisoners in all times. The spirits see Medea’s intense suffering. They want to help her. Demons know suffering. She asks them to bring poison, and the shining dress of sunlight that was her father’s gift, that she will now give to Créuse. The spirits of the night carefully soak the dress of light in all the poison of hurt and grief. The gates of hell rumble and shake. There is an earthquake, followed by a dance of spirits freed from their cages.



Créuse is not able wait one more day, until Medea finally leaves the country, to try on her new yellow dress. In fact, just putting on Medea’s enchanted dress has begun to change her. Her assistant Cléone can  sense that her employer has new powers. Jason is frightened and suddenly attracted to see a new woman in Medea’s unforgettable iconic dress. The more he looks the more he starts seeing both women. Créuse has a newly imperious sense of command. She tells Jason that he has to learn to suffer for love. Being in love is violent, means you are ready to be wounded. And she demands proof that her bond with Jason will be eternal. They take an oath: ‘Let angry Love punish us cruelly, and in justice, if we ever stop caring for each other.’ Créuse sees Oronte coming and runs. ‘Why does Créuse vanish every time she sees me?’ Oronte asks Jason, ‘I feel her extreme coldness. I see rejection in her heart. Could it be because my best friend is openly betraying me?’ Jason decides he would be safer right now returning to the front lines of the war.

Oronte is emotionally shattered and mentally lost. Medea tells him that heaven is not on their side, and the only thing left for them is to focus on is revenge. Oronte asks her ‘will revenge bring the ones we love back to us?’ Medea does not answer that question. ‘Where is this horrible feeling coming from?’ she asks herself, ‘why am I trembling? How can I remember that I am a mother and a woman?’ She looks at her children through lost eyes. ‘No, I must be inflexible. I must hurt Jason. I will wound him in a way that will never let him recover.’ The King arrives, fleeing public demonstrations in the streets protesting Medea’s continuing presence. Medea pointedly tells the King that she is happy to leave whenever Jason is ready to accompany her, and as soon as she is able to witness the betrothal of Créuse to Oronte. The King tells Medea that those are his decisions to make. She replies that his time for making decisions is over, and from now on she is in control. He orders his guards to seize her. With a magic spell Medea causes the guards first to attack each other, and then to turn and arrest the King. For a moment, Medea again loses her bearings and feels her exhaustion and fragility. Like the tired mother she is, she needs to lie down and rest. Healing spirits appear and begin a treatment to cure her wild rage. ‘Hearts disturbed by the delusion of anger, let go, let go. Please stop fighting us. Everyone feels our power. Even a heart of ice must allow itself to be moved.’ When the phantoms disappear the King starts shouting at Medea. Suddenly there is darkness. The King begins to fight his own demons. His lies come back to haunt him, and finally to destroy him. He fights for his life, randomly attacking strangers, and savagely murdering Oronte. Only the sight of his daughter Créuse is able to calm him. He will never speak again.


Medea talks to her children. She asks them if they are criminals like their father, and if they deserve to live. She sees the look in their eyes and asks herself if the satisfaction of seeing Jason suffer is worth the price of their lives. The children run from her. Créuse brings her father to Medea. He has lost his mental capacities and is subject to sudden violent episodes. Créuse begs Medea to lift the curse on him, to show mercy, to heal him. ‘A princess in tears begs you to give her back a father.’ Medea says that the punishments have not yet begun. ‘Then take Jason back.’ Créuse cries to her. ‘Just give me my father again.’ Medea can’t tell if this unexpected moment of triumph is enough to satisfy her raging, jealous heart.

The chorus begins a great lament. What is our country becoming? Where is all this hatred coming from? Our leaders are committing suicide. Why are we burying our children when in fact they need our support? We have worshipped false gods. We must stop worshipping false gods. We must refuse to worship them. We are living in a world that is inhuman and unjust.

Créuse has lost her father, and Medea has lost her children, all for a man who has lied to both of them. Créuse asks if Medea will ever be able to feel the weight of hurt and hatred that is now overwhelming her. Medea, still in shock, replies ‘So you’re disturbed by the sight of some blood?’ All of Medea’s plans have led to disaster, remorse and a kind of suffering that feels cruel and empty. But it is too late to stop. ‘Look at the person I have become’ and Créuse feels the first flames rising within her dress. She knows that she is burning with love and with pain, and now she realizes that she is also literally, physically burning. She is burning alive inside the dress that was the gift of the Sun. Jason arrives just in time to witness her slow agony and lingering death. They sing a fragile duet as chains of fire link and separate them forever. As Jason is mourning the death of his new love he sees the bodies of his dead children. Medea arrives to say goodbye. ‘This is the world you have made, Jason. Now you have to live in it.’ She is taken up into the sky as the world crumbles.

by Peter Sellars

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