Jean-Georges Noverre’s ballet Medea et Jason, first performed in 1763 in Stuttgart, reached the London stage in 1781 in a version by Gaëtan Vestris (who had danced Jason in Noverre’s original production). This ballet d’action falls well outside my usual areas of research, but my interest was stirred when I came across a playbill for a production which has been overlooked by most writers on Noverre and his work.
On 29 April 1790, the Royal Circus announced a programme which included ‘a Grand Spectacle, called Medea and Jason’. Despite the inclusion of another ‘Splendid Entertainment, called The Triumph of Liberty, or, the Destruction of the Bastille’, Medea and Jason is obviously meant to be the main draw. The playbill provides full details of the ‘Spectacle’ and I have tried to reproduce a flavour of the typography.
‘MEDEA AND JASON.
With the Overture and original Music composed by GLUCK.
THIS BEAUTIFUL SPECTACLE
Represents the remarkable PARTING between MEDEA and JASON,
When JASON quits that Sorceress, on his Marriage with CREUSA,
DAUGHTER OF CREON, KING of CORINTH;
The SORCERY by which MEDEA’S FURIES prepared
THE CABINET OF WILDFIRE, and the POISON’D NOSEGAY,
By which CREUSA is kill’d, and the Palace FIRED,
The dreadful STORM and LOUD THUNDER, that accompany the
SHOWER of FIRE,
Through which MEDEA rides in a triumphant Car, with her two Children;
Her barbarous Murder of the Infants, in the Presence of, and just before
The DEATH of JASON, amidst a DANCE of FLAMING FURIES,
JASON by MR. PALMER,
Creon, Signor ROSSI; Creusa, Signora SALA; and Medea, Mademoiselle De La CROIX.
The SCENES designed and executed by Mr. CAPON.’
Modern commentators have focussed on Medea and Jason’s expressive pantomime, which is seen as Noverre’s greatest innovation and a significant development for balletic art. However, Noverre’s scenario (as published in Paris in 1780, to accompany performances given under his direction) also describes a great deal of dramatic action. The production by Vestris at the King’s Theatre in 1781, which introduced the work to London, certainly included all the latter.
The Royal Circus (later to become the Surrey Theatre) had first opened in 1782 as a venue for equestrian shows as well as entertainments which offered singing and dancing within spectacular productions. It is hardly surprising that it was attracted by Medea and Jason’s melodramatic plot and scenic extravagances, both of which were likely to appeal to audiences far removed from the elite patrons at the King’s Theatre. The Royal Circus was probably more respectful of the ballet than the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where a burlesque version of Medea and Jason was given between 1781 and 1785, billed as by ‘Signior Novestris’ (George Colman the elder) with ‘Music by Signior Gluck. With New Scenes, Dresses and Decorations. Machinist and Painter – Signor Rookereschi. Tailor – Signior Walkerino’.
It is tempting to describe Medea and Jason as tailor-made for the Royal Circus, except for the dancing. ‘Mr. Palmer’ was Jason. He may have been the fourteen-year-old son of a previous stage manager at the Royal Circus. Mlle De La Croix, as Medea, seems to have been a young newcomer to the London stage. In 1790, she appeared in the corps de ballet of the Italian Opera as well as at the Royal Circus. At the King’s Theatre, Gaëtan Vestris had appeared with Adelaide Simonet in the title roles – both were leading dancers in the serious style. The Royal Circus playbill makes no claims for the dancing, Medea and Jason is described as a ‘Beautiful Spectacle’ and not as a tragic ballet d’action.
The following illustration, so often reproduced alongside discussions of Medea and Jason, was intended as a satire on the ballet and perhaps gives a flavour of the alternative versions to be seen at the Royal Circus and the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.