Concerts Series Songlines
Concert Hall
Plan Your Visit
Music At Mills
Giving To Mills

back to the concert »

Medea-Affresco-Pompei Story Background
Daughter of Aeetes, king of Colchis, Medea was the princess who fell in love with Jason when he arrived on his ship Argo seeking the Golden Fleece. Medea helped him defeat the fiery bulls and the men who arose when dragons' teeth seeds strewn in a field sprang up as armed soldiers. With her witchcraft she also put the dragon to sleep so that Jason could successfully steal the Golden Fleece. When Jason and Medea sailed away together to Jason's homeland, to slow the pursuit of her angry father Medea killed and dismembered her brother whose remains the followers stopped to gather in order to give Absyrtus a proper burial. Pelias, Jason's uncle who had usurped the throne of Thessaly from Jason's father Iolcus, was killed by his own daughters through a ruse perpetrated by Medea, thus necessitating her flight with Jason and their two sons to Corinth, where they had lived happily for some years, before Jason decided to abandon Medea in order to marry Creusa, daughter of King Creon. The opera opens at the time of the marriage festivities.

Darius-and-Madeleine-MilhaudFrench Libretto for Médée
Darius had received a commission from the State to write a theatrical work. He wanted to write an opera about jealousy. In his mind, jealousy was the strongest emotion of love, and one that if it were expressed could lead to tragedy. Therefore, he chose Medea - a jealous woman of strong character, full of passion, who could not bear it that Jason, whom she still loved, had turned to another marriage. Her jealousy and pride were powerful enough to make her able to inflict upon her unfaithful Jason the worst possible punishment, by murdering their beloved sons. During the summer of 1938 while we were at l'Enclos, we discussed who might write such a libretto. His usual collaborators were on holiday, so Darius asked me to do it. I am not a writer, and shall never be - but I made the libretto. I began to read several versions of Medea - Seneca's and others. I drew upon his play and also upon those of Euripides and Comeille. I used a second woman character in order to have a victim, who would be a charming young girl, in order to have a variety of voices. I tried to do what I knew Darius liked–type and length of scenes and so forth. When I agreed to write the libretto, I vowed to make it all from other sources. One works like a dressmaker if one is not a poet. I took a little from everywhere ...
–Madeleine Milhaud

Who was Medea? Tigress? Victim? Why is she remembered? Many scholars believe that most of the characters of Greek legend were historic persons too, and the Greek habit of addressing universal issues that have occupied man from time immemorial make the tragedies of the Greek Golden Age as pertinent today as when they won prizes in the annual spring drama contests. The Euripides version of the Medea story is the oldest and most frequent reference source extant, although the libretto by Madame Madeleine Milhaud for Darius Milhaud's opera MtDtE also draws heavily on Seneca's play.

During Festival Medea, five interpretations of the Medea legend are presented through drama, film and opera, including as authors Euripides, Seneca, Robinson Jeffers, Ernest Ferlita and Darius and Madeleine Milhaud. Some events are common to all versions, while others may be unique to one setting, such as the use of voodoo ritual by the chorus in Perlita's BLACKMEDEA, reference to horses by Jeffers, and the deaths on-stage of Creon and Creusa in Milhaud's opera. Among each of these five named versions, there are differences in characters and to some extent in motivation, while there is commonality in the inclusion of principals Medea, Jason, the nurse and the children.

The issues addressed in the Medea story remain lively problems in today's world - relationships between men and women, the position of women in the society, the treatment of foreigners, citizenship rights, to name only a few. In all versions, the dilemma which is the focus of tension becomes insoluble and inevitably results in tragedy. The Medea of drama is not totally irrational, and the ultimate tragedy of Medea's act of infanticide contains a certain strange logic. We see a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, with as a consequence the loss of citizenship - a woman who has been banished and has nowhere to tum for refuge (due to past crimes committed in helping Jason succeed), and a person who has no present and no future, who also sees no future for her children. Medea knows that they will be killed by Creon's household to avenge his and Creusa's deaths, or else they will, like their mother, be scorned and abused as exiles. She reasons that the most effective way to achieve revenge and to make Jason as bereft as herself is to deny him his progeny. Thus the tragedy is not a mere horror story but one rich in complexity and meaning. In Euripides' play, Medea persuades Jason to influence Creusa to take the children, as a ruse for sending the poisoned gifts. In Madeleine Milhaud's libretto, the children have been taken away from Medea by Creon, which strengthens the motive for revenge against him, and it also strengthens the motive for killing them: since they are denied to her, Jason must also be parted from them. In Scene VIII of Milhaud's opera, Medea in fact can hardly bring herself to kill the children, but does so in order to complete the ruin of Jason. From the opening measure of the overture, Milhaud's music makes readily apparent that his opera presents the tragedy of Medea - a woman wracked by jealousy, love turned to hatred, and an obsession with vengeance. In the opera, as also by Euripides and the other authors, it is assumed that the audience already knows the story. Thus Madame Milhaud distills the essence of the ideas and emotions in her libretto, rather than indulging in story-telling. In Milhaud's musical setting, the result is a compact work of great strength in its musical power and dramatic effect.

Milhaud's opera holds to the Greek tradition of presenting only two or three characters in a given scene. The formal structure of choruses alternating with action scenes remains, and in addition the music imposes its own structure and logic. The treatment of the text is as if the characters are holding a musical conversation, and their differences are made clear through the shapes of vocal melodies as well as by rhythmic pacing. There are no set pieces, except three choral sections that have clearly defined beginning and end, the first and last in chordal style, the center one polyphonic, giving its own structure to the choral interludes. There are no melismas except those of Creusa in Scene III to describe her happiness, and in Scene VIII (providing overall structural balance) to show her trust and then her distress as the fiery poison takes effect. At the end of the opera, Jason has one brief melisma to express his grief upon learning of the children's deaths.

Milhaud transforms orchestral material in building a balanced musical structure by, for example, the arpeggiated chords of the harp to accompany Creusa's "wedding" aria, which later returns re-orchestrated and altered dynamically to signify the ominous dread created for Creusa's death scene. Because the music is continuous, (although there are sectional endings that give a sense of pause), there are not set piece arias, or even breaks between scenes. There are, however, resolutions of sections and short pauses of silence between acts. The choices relating to density of spacing and instrumentation, degrees of dissonance, tessitura of voices and instruments, dynamic nuances and tempi all contribute to the dramatic cogency as well as to the overall lyricism of the opera. It is indeed complex, and requires repeated experience for intimate understanding of the elements that make it both powerful and moving. Darius Milhaud's MEDEAillustrates very well the statement made long ago that opera deepens and enhances through music the emotions of the drama and carries it beyond any other form of expression.

Synopsis Of The Opera Medea By Darius Milhaud
Act I
Scene I The Chorus and Creusa
The chorus sings of the wedding of Jason and Creusa, asking the gods to favor the marriage. They sing of the beauty of the bride and of the fortunate freeing of Jason from Medea. Then they invoke godly protection for the royal couple. Following the description by the tenors of the joyousness of the wedding festivities, Creusa enters and sings of her happiness, with the expectation of a placid married life. To end the scene, the chorus invokes Venus, goddess of love.
Scene II Medea and the Nurse
Medea is angry that Jason has abandoned her in a foreign country, especially after she has done so many deeds and committed so many crimes to help him. The nurse tries to placate her, but Medea declares that she still has all her courage, even though she has been deserted by Jason and banished from Corinth by Creon. She swears by heaven to invoke her own deities to help her seek revenge.
Scene III Medea and Creon
Creon enters, surprised that Medea has not already left Corinth. He demands that his guards keep Medea away from him. She attempts to beguile Creon by applauding his choice of Jason as a son-in-law. Stating that she is overcome by Creon's power and that he has nothing to fear from her, Medea begs him not to exile her. When he refuses to allow her to remain, she pleads that Jason is as guilty as she and asks that he be exiled with her. Medea's last request is to be allowed to tell her sons goodbye, a wish granted by Creon. The scene ends with the chorus singing that Creon fears Medea, and sympathizing with her for her sad fate.
Scene IV Jason and Medea
Jason sings of the turmoil agonizing his spirit and wonders if he has been too ungrateful to Medea. She stops him from leaving and asks how he can be so faithless after she has left her own country for him, has been so helpful and has saved his life so many times. Jason claims that he has persuaded Creon to exile rather than to execute Medea, but she counters that Jason simply wants her out of the way as a rival to Creusa. Medea begs Jason to go into exile with her, but he fears for their lives if he were to accompany her. When Medea calls him a coward, Jason says he does not worry about his own death, but wants a good life for the children. Medea accuses him of sacrificing her for their sake, and Jason agrees that they are more important to him than she is. He advises Medea to be less distraught and to accept her fate. When Jason leaves, Medea swears that she will seek a bloodthirsty revenge for having been spurned.
Scene V Chorus
The chorus declares that nothing is so violent as the fury of a scorned woman whose love has become mixed with hatred.

Scene VI Medea
Medea prepares her potion with which to permeate the golden robe and crown that she will give Creusa in order to cause her fiery death. Medea implores Hecate, her chief goddess, to help make the venom strong enough. Medea describes how she has loosened her hair and pierced her arm to enact the religious rituals used for funerals. When she is satisfied with her preparations, Medea asks the nurse to bring the children to her, so that they may take the gifts to Creusa. When they have left, the nurse sings of Creusa's untimely fate, then greets the children as they return, admonishing them to show their affection for their unhappy mother.

Scene VII Chorus and Creusa, Creusa with Creon, Creusa with Jason
The chorus moralizes that gold traps both mortals and gods, describes Creusa's delight with the golden gifts and announces her arrival. Creusa exults that Medea has renounced her anger, the evidence being the marvelous gifts. Men of the chorus warn Creusa that she is deceived, but she answers that there is nothing to fear, and that no one resents her now, since Jason's friends have also become hers. The fiery magic begins to take effect, but no one is willing to rescue Creusa for fear of becoming victimized by Medea themselves. Creon arrives and tries to rescue the dying Creusa, which leads to his instant death. He asks Jason to avenge them. After Creusa dies, Jason calls upon Zeus to punish Medea. The scene ends with a funereal dirge sung by the chorus.
Scene VIII The nurse and Medea, with the children
The nurse urges Medea to escape, but Medea replies that she wishes to complete her vengeance first, by killing the children. She calls them to her, but is so overcome by affection for them, that she can hardly bring herself to commit the act. She remembers her banishment without them, and sings that since they are lost to her, they must be parted also from Jason. Steeling herself, she slits their throats.
Scene IX Jason and Medea
Jason comes rushing on stage swearing vengeance on Medea for the deaths of Creusa and Creon. Medea appears, declaring that her ancestor the Sun will help her escape Jason's outrage. She shows Jason that she has killed the children to satisfy her rage over his having broken his marriage vows. As Jason grieves over the loss of his sons, Medea bids him farewell, reminding him that the tragedy has resulted from his infidelity.


Buy Tickets

Keywords: Mills College

Get tickets now

Sign Up
Sign up for our mailing list, and you'll get all the latest updates.

Send me more info