Beirut at sunset. Photo: Ahmad Moussaoui

As the rest of the Middle East swirls in chaos, Lebanon remains a peaceful eye in the center of the storm—peaceful enough to boast world-renowned fashion designers, power-walking yuppies, a slow food movement, and, of course, Uber. Among the trappings of modern cosmopolitanism, one even finds that bucolic refuge of so many Western urbanites, the out-of-town classical music festival. Mainly located in the hills above Beirut, scenic locations combining the country’s storied past with its dramatic natural beauty draw convoys of SUVs—and even a few humble Ubers—to a variety of offerings. Operating since 1994, the stately Al Bustan Festival presents five weeks of music developed around a theme. This year it is “Queens and Empresses of the Orient,” a mixture of historic and mythological women who inspired great works of (almost entirely) Western art. The festival program usually features an opera, often one chosen well outside the standard repertoire. This time Euterpe’s favor daringly fell on Luigi Cherubini’s stormy Medea (1797), given in the Italian version introduced at La Scala in 1909 and popularized as a vehicle for Maria Callas in the 1950s.

Lest any university-based pedants raise tired hackles of “Orientalism” to denounce the festival theme, the program’s introduction expands on the very current point that while women played enormous roles in the Middle East’s ancient past (there are evenings dedicated to Semiramis, Cleopatra, and Zenobia, among others), their current involvement is marginal. This is an acute concern of the festival’s president Myrna Boustany, the first woman elected to the Lebanese parliament, a body that is at present barely 3 percent female. Among le tout Beyrouth who sponsor and attend (many of whom still sport French given names), however, there seemed to be little more concern than scrutinizing each other’s outfits and silently estimating the authenticity of the various fur garments on display as Lebanon shakes off its mild winter.

Medea is Cherubini’s best known work, which is not saying much given his steep fall into obscurity. His lack of renown, however, belies his sweeping reputation during his lifetime. Beethoven called him the greatest musician of his era, presumably surpassing even himself. A couple of generations later Brahms described Medea as “the highest peak of dramatic music.” Cherubini’s storied career took him from promising and well-supported Italian beginnings to an adulthood spent almost entirely in France, where he proved equally adept at weathering the storm of revolution, waiting out Napoleonic uncertainty, and settling back into official good graces during the Bourbon Restoration. Exceedingly famous, he ended his days as the director of the Paris Conservatoire and the stoic composer of a Requiem mass for his own funeral. His music departed from Italian and French convention by hewing more toward the dramatic. A precursor not only of Beethoven, but of Weber, Marschner, and ultimately Wagner and others who would react angrily against the bel canto tradition, Cherubini stood as a kind of godfather to the compositional school that developed tight harmonics and orchestral shade to explore the inner lives of characters and fundamental truth of unfolding drama. Only Cherubini’s irascible temper seems to have doomed him to near oblivion. Hector Berlioz, who emerged as France’s leading composer in the decades after Cherubini's death, clashed with him at the Conservatoire and described him in his influential memoirs as an outdated pedant with no relevance to the further development of music. The composer Adolphe Adam more wryly observed that Cherubini was even-tempered because he was always angry. When he died in 1842, he was a man many preferred to forget regardless of his artistic merits.

In the genealogy of opera, Medea anticipated not only the stylistic innovations of the nineteenth century’s solidly Romantic composers, but even plot elements of more familiar works. Presenting a mythical subject taken from Euripides via the French classical dramatist Pierre Corneille, Cherubini’s opera relates the demented tale of its eponymous character, who is betrayed by Jason (Giasone in the opera, he of the Golden Fleece) and takes her revenge by killing their two children after poisoning Giasone’s new bride Glauce and torching the temple where they were to be married. Like Bellini’s Norma, she is a wronged woman with two children by the man who abandoned her and badly wants to ensure his fidelity. Her murder of Glauce looks forward to Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, who was also done in by poisonous gifts (flowers for Adriana; robe, crown, and jewels for Glauce). Looking forward to the malevolent Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin, Medea invokes pagan deities to steel her resolve and empower her vengeance. Her sheer feminine villainy places her in the vanguard of an operatic tradition that would grow to include Venus, Delilah, Salome, Elektra, and Turandot. In 1797, just a decade after the premiere of Don Giovanni, she was an altogether new type for stages more accustomed to diaphanous Mozart heroines and opera seria populated by the virtuous women of antiquity.           

The Al Bustan Festival can pull in impressive talent to bring the gift of opera to the Middle East. In Svetla Vassileva, the role of Medea received an excitingly sustained performance with soaring high notes and a level of emotional distress that suggested a serious study of Callas’s famous recording of the opera. Lorenzo Decaro’s Giasone resonated with a buoyant, clarion tone but at times seemed a bit forced. Rather more solid was the talented Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze's Creonte, the father of Glauce, whose authority drives much of the action but cannot prevent its terrible denouement. Ilona Domnich’s Glauce seemed to lack balance, but this seemed appropriate for a woman in her awkward position. The role of Medea’s slave Neride gave room for the impressive technique and eloquent delivery of the lovely Italian mezzo Daniela Pini. Maestro Gianluca Marcianò, Al Bustan’s artistic director, did what he could with the Festival Orchestra, which brought only occasional flair to Cherubini’s sophisticated score. Choruses performed by the well-rehearsed choir of Serbia’s National Theatre added powerfully to the drama. The effort and intentions should be praised, and yet Lebanon will likely have to wait another year for its next opera.