Medea of Corinth ...
Benjamin Lees...thirty-minute Medea in Corinth is for four singers and the unlikely opera-pit ensemble of wind quintet and tympani. It was first performed by the Grosvenor Ensemble in London in 1971, and received a CBS Television production in 1974. The vocal score is also a full score, complete and excellent. The libretto, adapted from Robinson Jeffers, is of high quality, a pleasure to hear and to sing. Lees sets it with unusual clarity--of American opera composers, he surpasses all but Virgil Thomson in his skill with words. The story is the grisly one of Medea killing her own children in revenge for Jason's betrayal.
Lees' music is as austere as the play--the wind writing relies heavily on parallel intervals, often fifths, usually in dissonant chromatic combinations. But surprisingly, this austerity gives great simplicity and dignity to the wind quintet sound, which can easily be trivially charming. The vocal writing is varied and flattering, especially for Medea--this should be a showpiece for great mezzo-sopranos. In addition to the high drama one would expect in the role, there is a diatonic passage just before the killing that is breathtaking and heartbreakingly tender. Altogether, this Medea is unlike any other, in fact unlike any other work in the repertory. Both music and text have the plainspoken quality that often characterizes the best in American art. It makes me want to hear Lees' other music as well. If his other works are as original and gripping as Medea, there is much here for performers and listeners to enjoy.
Notes, March 1989