NEW YORK — The first time Sondra Radvanovsky opened the Metropolitan Opera season, she played a mother who contemplates murdering her two young sons as revenge against her faithless lover.
Five year later she’s back in a role that’s strikingly similar — with one crucial difference.
“You know, the last opening night I didn’t quite get to killing the kids, but this time I succeeded,” Radvanovsky said, indulging in a bit of gallows humor.
Such moments of levity are in short supply in Luigi Cherubini’s “Medea,” a work of almost unrelenting intensity that premiered in Paris in 1797 and is having its first-ever Met production to inaugurate the new season on Sept. 27.
The composer and his librettist, François-Benoît Hoffman, based their story of the legendary sorceress on the play by Euripides (and an adaptation by Pierre Corneille). Medea, abandoned by her lover Jason (Giasone in the opera), takes revenge by killing his new bride, the bride’s father and — after considerable hesitation — her own children, punishing Jason by leaving him without an heir.
“Even though it was composed in the 18th century, it’s very relatable to today’s times,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, “It’s the story of a woman who has been grossly mistreated, who embraces her rage and does something about it. Of course I’m not suggesting mothers should kill their children, but she’s a woman who fights back.”
He said the decision to stage “Medea” was based largely on Radvanovsky’s desire to perform it.
“When we decide to do new productions, one reason is to create a vehicle for one of our leading artists who we think will shine in a particular role,” Gelb said. “Quite frankly, we wouldn’t have done ‘Medea’ if she wasn’t interested.”
Radvanovsky said she was drawn to the part because “she’s just such a complex character.
“She has these different aspects of her personality, as I think we all do,” she said, “and you see it start to fracture in a way to justify killing her children.”
Radvanovsky said Medea remains “conflicted right up until the moment she decides,” and the tipping point comes when she hears Jason lamenting the death of his new wife.
“She’s basically thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re crying over her, but you don’t care about your children. I’m going to give you something to cry about now,'” Radvanovsky said. “It’s dark.”
Dark suits the American-Canadian soprano just fine. “I really love dark and brooding and dying,” she said, and many of her roles at the Met would seem to bear that out, from the doomed Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” to the Tudor queens of Donizetti, to the self-sacrificing Druid priestess in Bellini’s “Norma.” It was in that last role that she opened the season in 2017.
Vocally, too, a heroine-in-extremis is well-suited to her thrilling, powerful sound and her willingness to sacrifice sheer beauty of tone for dramatic impact.
James Jorden, creator and editor of the opera blog Parterre Box, who has followed Radvanovsky’s career closely, praised her ability to “balance regal dignity and fierce passion to an electrifying effect.
“And the role of Medea should lie in the most effective and brilliant part of her voice,” he added, “specially in the third act when the character is in supreme frenzy.”
Despite Radvanovsky’s impressive list of more than 200 Met performances since her 1996 debut, her relationship with the house has not always been happy. In fact, early in Gelb’s tenure, he told her agent she was “not on my radar.”
That dismissal she traces in part to an ill-advised choice of roles: Rosalinde in Johann Strauss Jr.’s frothy operetta “Die Fledermaus.”
“It was just so far out of my realm, I was really a duck out of water,” she said. “Quite frankly, if I had seen me as Rosalinde, in German, not my language, my medium, I wouldn’t have hired me again either.”
Gelb now says that he was wrong: “I misjudged her. I didn’t fully understand the distinct quality of her voice, its ability to convey raw emotion.”
Redemption came when she triumphed in a 2009 Met production of “Trovatore” directed by David McVicar.
Now, at 53, Radvanovsky feels she’s in her vocal prime and is taking on even more dramatic challenges, like Puccini’s “Turandot” and “La Fanciulla del West” and Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” As for Wagner, with its punishing demands on the voice, “I’m not saying no … I’m just saying not yet. I’d love to keep singing for another 10 or 20 years. ”
At present, she has no contracts for future appearances at the Met, but Gelb said he would be meeting with her after opening night to discuss possibilities.
The “Medea” being performed at the Met isn’t quite as Cherubini wrote it. Originally it was “Médée,” a French “opera-comique,” which didn’t mean it was a comedy but rather part of a tradition in which musical numbers were interspersed with spoken dialogue.
The Met is doing it in Italian and replacing the dialogue with sung recitative. That’s the version used when Maria Callas rescued the opera from semi-obscurity in 1953.
Though purists prefer the original, both Gelb and Radvanovsky said they felt the Italian version would work better at the Met, where the vast reaches of the auditorium can make spoken dialogue difficult for performers and audience.
The production reunites the soprano with McVicar, under whose guiding hand she has enjoyed many of her biggest successes. It also stars tenor Matthew Polenzani as Giasone, soprano Janai Brugger as his bride Glauce, bass Michele Pertusi as her father Creonte and mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova as Medea’s attendant Neris, and will be conducted by Carlo Rizzi.
The matinee performance on Oct. 22 will be shown live in HD to movie theaters worldwide.