University Opera’s “Medea”: Child Custody Battle, Greco-Italian Style

Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 setting of the Medea myth should be a double-edged terror: The audience should be horrified that the title character debates at length whether to cede her sons’ lives and affections to their unfaithful father, Jason, — or kill them — and the soprano tackling the role should be shaking in her costume at the vocal challenges confronting her. After all, this was an opera that largely languished until the 1950s, when none other than Maria Callas conquered the role and launched her legendary career.

Sunday afternoon at the Music Hall, Shannon Prickett donned a flowing, red-drenched gown and flooded the auditorium with moments of vocal majesty, and added stretches of skillful acting into the bargain. Given the fact that she was alternately cast with Cassie Glaeser (who opened the William Farlow-directed University Opera production on Friday night, and repeats it on Tuesday, November 13), she made the most of her opportunity by hitting it out of the park. The baseball analogy is particularly apt, as Ms. Prickett’s voice appears to be on track to reach the major leagues.

This version of the story is that Jason, captain of the Argo and on a quest for the Golden Fleece, agrees to take Medea for his wife in exchange for her help in snatching the fabled prize. Along the way they have two sons, and, fleece safely in hand, Jason takes the boys off to Corinth, planning to marry King Creon’s daughter, Glauce. Medea, who went so far as to kill her brother as part of the necessary machinations, arrives in time for the rehearsal dinner, so to speak. The people of Corinth want her dead, she wants Jason, Glauce, and (probably) her sons dead. The King promises to protect everyone against Medea, but given her dark sorceress resume, he seems overmatched.

He is. Not only in power, but in vocalism, which is a good thing, since if you don’t have a powerhouse Medea in this opera, you’ve got a train wreck waiting to happen. But it isn’t merely that Prickett had all the high notes when needed. She consistently gave us something more: A phrase that starts at the top of her impressive range, carefully but securely placed, and weaves it downward into a sinister phrase that oozed multi-layered menace. And particularly in the second act, Prickett revealed some subtle acting to match her vocalism, with flickers of facial expressions that could flip a switch from delighted deceit to hidden sarcasm.

This was a Medea with a great deal of support however: Ariana Douglas set a high vocal standard as Glauce long before the title character’s first appearance, and as her kingly father, Erik Larson delivered reliably strong vocal lines as well. Amy Sheffer had her only go-round in the role of Neris, Medea’s servant, and maximized her long solo aria as Medea sleeps before her in Act II.

Aldo Perrelli as Jason proved a solid match in a couple of exchanges with his estranged wife, but elsewhere failed to project a mythical strength, vocally or visually. The fact that the chorus consisted of the UW Madrigal Singers resulted in as fine a display of operatic choral singing at this level this auditor can recall. As to why they kept trotting out in black concert formal wear, while the principals were in suitably ancient Greek garb, I cannot say.

Farlow’s direction must have paid huge dividends with Prickett, but elsewhere the players seemed static to the point of stiffness. In the orchestra pit, Andrew Sewell made a guest appearance and did a predictably impressive job of imposing energy, pace and unanimity upon the student ensemble. Having seen Medea at last, I have but one regret: that I didn’t see each performance with the various cast changes. If you’re reading this on Tuesday the 13th, I urge you to head out tonight.

Photo: Aldo Perrelli, Shannon Prickett, the UW Madrigal Singers, courtesy of Brent Nicastro.