Of all Milhaud's works for the stage, Médée is probably the most faultless in terms of musical architecture. More than in his other operas, vocal style unifies the work, being a most important structural component. The orchestra's role in formal creation is even more significant in this opera than in most others by the composer. Lyricism is quite notable. Underlying the score is the excellent libretto, noteworthy in its own right, by Milhaud's wife, Madeleine.
Through the agency of Georges Huysmans, Minister of National Education, the French government commissioned Milhaud to compose either a ballet or one-act opera. The composer chose an opera. Having wanted to represent a dangerously jealous female character for some time, he suggested as a subject his wife's idea of utilizing the Medea legend. Milhaud then asked his wife to prepare a libretto plan. In discussing who should be the librettist, the composer asked Madame Milhaud herself to be the one.
Madeleine Milhaud's libretto follows the Classical sources of Euripides and Seneca, taking the general outline from the former and more specific details from the latter. From Corneille she borrowed the dramatically important character of Créuse [Creusa -- or Glance, as called by Euripides -- is only mentioned in the Classical plays], Medea's closing line, and Creon's predecadence of Créuse. For the latter, Madame Milhaud has Creon trying to take the deadly garment off Creusa, thereby himself succumbing to the poison as well. Throughout the opera, the focus is kept on Medea.
The Milhauds made the central tableaux, which includes the lengthy invocation to Hecate, the dramatic center of the opera. In wonderful contrast to the surrounding tableaux and customary expectations, beauty and an unnatural restraint predominate. Here, Medea is most expansively lyrical, singing the first real great aria in the opera.
Indeed, in Médée, Milhaud uses recitative, arioso, and aria to delineate relative emotions and character. Aria is used in calm resigned or restrained states, by Medea in Tableau 2 and by Creusa. Moderate, more lyrical dialogue is set mostly to arioso, a significant part of Jason's role. Recitative is used not only for excited, visceral states, such as Medea's rage, but forms the bulk of Creon's music.
Milhaud composed Médée at l'Enclos during the summer of 1938. Despite the war situation, the premiere was given by the Flemish Opera of Anvers on October 7, 1939. Milhaud wrote that the Paris Opéra production was blessed by the excellent performance of Marisa Ferrer as Medea. The same could not be said of the acting of the chorus, who were finally positioned as a Greek Chorus, their part being represented on stage by dancers. On May 8, 1940, the Parisian debut took place in front of a full house of the toast of Paris. Médée, however, was to be the last production of the Paris Opéra before German occupation. Even as the audience listened to the 70-minute opera the muted sound of anti-aircraft fire could be heard.
...and an interesting article about a more recent revival:
http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/29 ... medee.html
Medée, opera in 3 tableaux, op. 191 (vocal score, 1938)