Florence, Italy — Luigi Cherubini's operatic masterpiece ``Med'ee'' (or ``Medea,'' in the better-known Italian version) was originally written for the Th'e^atre Feydeau in Paris in 1797. It is concerned with the Greek legend of Medea, a mysterious sorceress who helped Jason capture the Golden Fleece. Its story derives from Seneca's setting (in Latin) of Euripides's play. The text, in French, is the work of Fran,cois-Benoit Hoffmann, who set his three-act trag'edie-lyrique in ancient Corinth, his stage peopled with citizens of Corinth, Jason's victorious Argonauts, and King Cr'eon's heroic soldiers. The grandiose production of ``Med'ee'' that opened this season in Florence had originally been mounted at the Op`era in Paris last February. Costs being what they are today, major opera houses sometimes launch shared productions in order to split the expense of sets, costumes, and stage direction.
In the Florentine production, the chorus, orchestra, conductor, and most of the cast differed from the earlier presentation; what remained the same was Med'ee (sung magnificently by Shirley Verrett); the language (barely decipherable French); the stage direction (by Liliana Cavani); the costumes (opulently designed by Franca Squarciapino); and the unit stage set (the creation of Ezio Frigerio). An unsettling set design
It is with this last element, the set, that any discussion of the production must begin, since it completely dominated the visual picture and virtually dictated the parameters of the dramatic action.
The center of attention was a vast, Panth'eon-style cupola slanted backwards at an angle of 30 degrees. At its base, reaching from one side of the stage to the other, was a series of some two dozen ascending stairs, defining a space in which the action of the opera had to take place.
Since the action at the base of this enormous dome seemed somewhat insignificant to the director, he hired acrobats to walk up and down the pillars to make them an integral part of the show. This distracted from the dramatic action, and destroyed the forced perspective of the set design.
In keeping with the neo-classical lines of the stage set, Mr. Squarciapino designed costumes in late 18th-century style. Instead of wool chitons and flowing togas, the women of Corinth (Paris?) were dressed in elegant hooped gowns decorated with garlands, ribbons, tassels, and bows. The men of this ancient city were bewigged and costumed in satin coats and silken knee breeches. And, as Jason's triumphant Argonauts marched across the stage, we saw what could pass for French soldiers in plumed helmets of shining silver with swords buckled at their sides.
More than a few people in the audience were puzzled by this staging of an ancient Greek legend as a neo-classical, French Revolutionary drama. Miss Calvani, the stage director, explained it quite simply (though for me, quite inadequately), by saying that ``Cherubini's music is obviously neo-classical in design, so the stage d'ecor should match the music.''
In addition to this travesty of concept, Miss Calvini added other disturbing touches: a ``scene'' during the overture in which the two sons of Med'ee and Jason fly a kite in the Panth'eon; a group of ``kinsfolk'' for the supposedly lone Med'ee, a gypsy-like group entrusted with boring, repetitive actions; and a blind man who, during every lengthy orchestral passage, slowly shuffled across the stage (a symbolic representation of Destiny?).
The highlight of the production was the star, Shirley Verrett, who must surely possess one of the most gorgeous vocal instruments on the lyric stage today. While not the powerful actress one expects of a Med'ee, her first-act aria, ``C'est le destin mon ma^itre,'' revealed the richness and beauty of her voice, each phrase and line carefully crafted, the whole revealing the pathos of this moving plea to Jason to return to her.
As Dirc'e, the Corinthian princess betrothed to Jason, Patrizia Pace was mellifluous and artistic; while Margarita Zimmermann, as Neris, maid to Med'ee, gave a solid, musical performance even though her voice is perhaps not the most sensuous. Nicola Ghiuselev sang an adequate if not exceptional King Cr'eon, but Ernesto Veronelli was completely miscast as Jason. Veronelli's voice was breathy in quality and too small in size, his acting lacked the commanding presence needed for an effective Jason.
As always, the Teatro Comunale Chorus was excellent, each choral passage becoming one of the richly rewarding musical moments of the evening. (``C'est `a vous `a trembler,'' the chorus's invocation in Act I, being a case in point.) The Maggio Musicale Orchestra played especially well, Bruno Bartoletti conducting with understanding and persuasion. Coming events in Florence:
The second opera of the season, Rossini's popular and humorous ``L'Italiana in Algeri'' (The Italian Girl in Algiers), opened Oct. 17, and a new production of ``La Gioconda'' by Amilcare Ponchielli opens Nov. 2. Serge Prokofiev's seldom-heard opera of 1929, ``II Giocatore'' (The Gambler) opens Nov. 21, with Eduardo Mata conducting.
In December, Teatro Comunale presents Richard Strauss's ``Elektra.'' The lyric season ends at the Teatro Metastasio in nearby Prato with Jean-Baptiste Lully's almost never-heard ``Atys.''
Interspersed with the opera productions are evenings of dance: the Ballet du Grand Th'e^atre de Gen`eve in late October, and the Corps di Ballo of the Teatro Comunale di Firenze in November, December, and January. There is also a concert by the Chorus and Orchestra of Varsavia in October and a piano recital by Michele Campanella in late November. Altogether a varied season offering both novelties and favorites.