Abu Dhabi Festival's co-production of Medea draws a royal crowd in Madrid

Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia attended the opening night at the Teatro Real

Teatro Real teamed up with Abu Dhabi Festival for a co-commission of the opera Medea. Photo: Teatro Real
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It's the day after Tuesday's opening night and Italian soprano Maria Agresta is wiped out.

Then again, the fatigue is what she signed up for when taking on the title role in the epic opera Medea at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain.

With Agresta playing one of the most challenging characters in the opera canon, the production kicked off Teatro Real’s performance season with Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia in attendance.

“Opening nights are always difficult and it’s almost like an event of its own,” she says.

“You just try to keep focused and not get too distracted by all the extra noise and I definitely will not read what the critics say until I finish my work.”

Agresta has until October 4, when Medea’s run concludes, to stay away from the commentary, but chances are she has nothing to worry about.

Co-produced by Abu Dhabi Festival as part of its ADF Abroad programme of international events, the opera has been praised for its startling and at times graphic take on the Greek tragedy by Euripides.

Set in the kingdom of Colchis on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, Medea is based on a character from ancient Greek mythology.

Abandoned by her husband, the unscrupulous soldier Jason, the sorceress descends into a pit of rage and ultimately kills her children.

A jarring scene depicting the brutal murder opens the production before we witness Medea’s steady decline.

Agresta subscribes to the prevailing theory that Medea exhibited volatile symptoms of bipolar disorder, thus explaining her conflicting feelings of tender affection for her children and moods of total annihilation.

“And I think the opera does well in that it doesn’t exploit the condition,” she says.

“It moves methodically, and it shows you how she can get to the tragic stage where she wants to destroy her life because of the trauma she feels.

“That is shown through the difficult technical aspects or the role where vocally you have to show those emotions that can be loving as well as deep and dark anger.”

This partly explains why Medea, despite being acclaimed as one of the great 18th-century operas by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini, is not regularly staged.

In addition, the large choral cast and set design – which in this case mixed the lavish royal courtyards and temples of Colchis with modern elements of industrial buildings and urban landscapes – requires a hefty period of preparation from its lead soprano.

For Agresta, 45, it took a month.

“I cancelled everything to really focus on entering the world of Medea and this is why many singers do it in their later careers,” she says.

“Your voice muscles need to evolve to inhabit the character and you have to be comfortable enough in your career to give yourself sufficient time away from regular performances to prepare for the role,” she says.

British conductor Ivor Bolton, who as Teatro Real's musical director leads the in-house orchestra for the production, says Medea galvanised popular opera when it premiered in Paris in 1797.

He cites the work as influencing composers and librettists to pen stronger female characters such as in the 19th-century operas Carmen by Georges Bizet and Tosca by Giacomo Puccini.

“It kind of broke a lot of the rules in terms of its constantly shifting orchestration, which also has elements from the Baroque and Romantic eras," he says.

"Then you have the strong story itself, which is meant to be powerful, unapologetic and looks at deeper issues that we are still coming to terms with today.”

Agresta agrees, noting that Medea also shows the hardships women historically faced in society.

"Women never had a choice. Their path to social acceptance was through marriage and a man can easily decide how long the marriage can last," she says.

"In Medea's case it's worse because not only does he abandon her for another woman but also takes her children. These are stories that still resonate in society today and it does ask if this is fair."

Such provocative performances have become a hallmark of Abu Dhabi Festival’s international co-productions.

Medea follows last year's Teatro Real season opener featuring Giuseppe Verdi's ancient Egyptian opera Aida and Gustav Mahler’s potent symphony Resurrection (also known as his Symphony Number 2) at Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in France.

Abu Dhabi Festival artistic director Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo says the international collaboration reflects some of the festival’s aims of creating work pertinent to today's world, while contributing to the industry’s recovery from the financial hardships caused by the pandemic.

The knowledge exchange with top class cultural institutions, she adds, also helps Abu Dhabi Festival’s local programming – including the actual annual festival itself in the emirate which returns in early 2024 – become richer in scope.

“Strategic collaborations and partnerships are vital in our pursuit of our vision, as we aim to support the global flourishing of culture and the arts in and from our progressive country,” she says.

“We are committed to cultural diplomacy and fostering cross-cultural dialogue and exchange, forging deeper connections between nations through the power of art.”

UAE's ambassador to Spain, Omar Obaid Al Hassan Al Shamsi, agrees, describing Medea as another “cultural milestone for both the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Spain”.

It is a relationship that is set to continue on the big stage for some time to come.

Medea will be performed at Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain until October 4. More information is available at www.teatroreal.es

Updated: September 22, 2023, 6:02 PM