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Motherhood and Murder: Cherubini's 'Medea'

It's no secret that movie and television audiences have a taste for sensational dramas, driven by raw passion and brutal violence. And, truth be told, audiences in the rarified atmosphere of the opera house have more or less the same predilections.

Somehow, opera has developed a reputation as a cultivated, highbrow sort of entertainment. Yet a close look at what goes on in a typical opera might make you wonder how that reputation arose — and the story told by Luigi Cherubini's Medea is a prime example.

The drama's title character is a notorious figure from Greek mythology, a sorceress whose main claim to fame is the event that brings down the curtain on Cherubini's opera: She murders her own children. And that's only the last part of her story. Leading up to that, she killed her brother. Then, as Medea's father was chasing her out of town, she dismembered the brother's corpse and scattered the pieces behind her as she fled, knowing that dad would have to delay his pursuit to give each body part a proper burial!

So it's not surprising that of all the music Cherubini wrote, in a distinguished career lasting more than 60 years, it's Medea for which he's best remembered. It was written in 1797, late in the decade of the French Revolution.

By at least one count, the revolutionary years saw some 2000 new theatrical productions in France. Of all those, Medea is the only opera that is still heard regularly in today's theaters. And the gruesome story isn't the only reason for its continuing success; Cherubini's musical score is as daring as the drama itself, featuring some of the most innovative and expressive music in any opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Cherubini's masterpiece from the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. Anna Caterina Antonacci takes on the challenging title role — a task made even more daunting by the role's close association with the great soprano Maria Callas. Also starring is tenor Giuseppe Filianoti as Jason, the famous Argonaut who fathered Medea's ill-fated sons.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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