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Roderick Williams as Pollux, Henry Waddington as Jupiter and Allan Clayton as Castor [Photo by Alastiar Muir courtesy of English National Opera]
01 Nov 2011

Castor & Pollux, ENO

Daring dramas which probe dark psychological depths; music that embodies visceral emotional conflicts, and stirs heated, often contradictory, passions; the text and score shaped into radical musico-dramatic structures, employing shockingly inventive harmonic language and orchestral timbres.

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Castor & Pollux

Castor: Allan Clayton; Pollux: Roderick Williams; Télaïre: Sophie Bevan; Phébé: Laura Tatulescu; Jupiter: Henry Waddington; High Priest of Jupiter: Andrew Rupp; Mercury/Athlete: Ed Lyon. Conductor: Christian Curnyn. Director: Barrie Kosky. Designer: Katrin Lea Tag. Lighting Designer: Franck Evin. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 24th October 2011.

Above: Roderick Williams as Pollux, Henry Waddington as Jupiter and Allan Clayton as Castor

Photos by Alastiar Muir courtesy of English National Opera

 

Rameau’s operas made a revolutionary impact in their day, giving rise to vehement confrontation between two, warring musical factions at the French court of Louis XV, as the champions of the conservative Lully and controversial Rameau fought for operatic and cultural supremacy.

Yet, Rameau remains relatively rarely performed today, and so anticipation for the first Rameau opera to be presented at ENO was naturally considerable. However, after witnessing director Barrie Kosky’s Castor and Pollux - his company debut and a co-production with Komsiche Opera, Berlin, where Kosky has recently been appointed Intendant — one might have been forgiven for thinking that the opera simply boils down to legs and feet.

Perhaps before I go on, I ought to acknowledge, as I will later expand, that musical standards throughout were high and that some of the production’s eclectic assemblage of motifs, concepts and images were thought-provoking and potentially revealing. But, the absence of ‘particularity’ of time and place ultimately rendered the various symbols rootless and gratuitous. Gestures became gimmicks.

Thus, lower limbs and freakish footwear were visually ubiquitous. Garishly stocking-ed legs; stamping, twisting lower limbs — all that was visible of the chorus as the cavorted behind half-lowered back-drops; the feet of the half-buried Castor protruding from his earthy grave; the disappearing toes of Pollux slipping in pursuit of his brother into the realms of the Underworld; then, the exposed thighs of the sisters, Télaïre and Phébé as they slithered and writhed up and down the earthy burial mound, or, poised above the prostrate Pollux, whipped up their skirts and dragged down their knickers, and another pair, and another pair … If the directorial foot fetish waned, thankfully, after the interval, the chorus’s lower limbs replaced by a row of heads sporting freakish Hallowe’en headgear, the motif was resurrected in the closing scenes of the opera, as twinkling stardust decorated the discarded boots of Castor and Pollux (the brothers now having ascended to immortal realms) — a rather earthbound image for this moment of supreme transcendence.

If such observations seem facetious, I would contend that matters of costume and gesture would matter less if they did not interfere with the music or the drama. Or, if they merely distracted rather than disrupted, even destroyed. For, frequently, Rameau’s vigorous, energised score seemed trampled into submission. Thus, as the introductory instrumental passages initiated the mood and ambience of the conflicts to come, the rhythms and textures succumbed to elephantine clomping, as Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé stomped about the stage like a sulky brat, bewailing her fate and pounding the walls in frustration. This established an irritating precedent. Scarcely an entrance was not accompanied by a fury of footfalls, with the result that the soloists’ poundings often obliterated the precisely nuanced accompaniments to their own and each other’s recitatives — disastrous in a work where every gradation of colour, tempo and harmony underpins a textual or dramatic detail.

Castor_ENO_01.gifRoderick Williams as Pollux and Omari Bernard as Lyncaeus

If the protagonists were not throwing themselves, and each other, noisily about the stage, then the chorus was rushing here and there, frenetic stamping accompanied by demented hand-weaving and wiggling. Seated at times on the very edge of the stage, fore-grounded legs dangling over the orchestral pit, they could not jump up and down, so they bounced inanely on their behinds instead.

Over one half of Rameau’s score is dance music, but in this production the oft changing rhythms and tempi of the orchestral passages, which fluidly interweave between the long recitatives and flexible arioso sections, were overshadowed by such, apparently intentional, cacophonous stage business and clamour. Kosky and conductor Christian Curnyn have left 70% of Rameau’s dances in place, but as the director explains in a programme ‘conversation’, took the decision to have “no dancing in the production. We do other things with the dance music”. There is indeed a medley of such ‘other things’: psychotic jerking about, the now obligatory nudity scenes, some ‘horror’ episodes imported from a B-movie. But, Rameau’s dances are much more than mere divertissements; they elucidate character and plot, and the challenge is to find a way of integrating the dances into the emotional momentum which builds rapidly and frequently to hugely passionate climaxes. (It’s perhaps not inconsequential that the last time a major UK opera company performed Rameau was almost 15 years ago, when American choreographer, Mark Morris staged Platée at Covent Garden.)

Castor_ENO_05.gifLaura Tatulescu as Phoebe, Roderick Williams as Pollux and Sophie Bevan as Telaïre

Designer Katrin Lea Tag’s stage was itself bare and bleak, a harshly lit panelled cube, the only ‘props’ and setting being two plastic folding chairs and a pile of brown earth. Certainly if Lully’s operas were characterised by special effects and spectacle, then his rival Rameau eschewed extravagance in favour of an intense emotional focus. The “timeless”, unspecified locale was designed to concentrate our attention on “the constellation of human emotions of love and jealousy inherent in the piece”, to allow us to focus on the drama; but, I found that the intrusion of an assemblage of random, fantastical, and farcical elements hindered empathy with the protagonists’ essential ethical dilemmas; stripped of its classical restraint and nobility, the opera’s psychological realism was lost.

The question which lies at the centre of the opera is: which is the stronger, fraternal or sexual love? The mortal Castor is brother to Pollux, who is the son of Jupiter and therefore immortal. Both brothers love Télaïre, but although betrothed to Pollux she, like her sister Phébé, adores his earthly sibling. Phébé’s jealous plotting brings about shattering tragedy and loss, but also inspires loyalty, selflessness and love. Following epic trials and travails, the brothers, after several ‘rescue missions’ to dark regions of the after-life, are united in celestial paradise as the constellation Gemini, Castor’s altruism and self-sacrifice leading Jupiter to grant him immortality also. The two women remain alone on earth.

As noted in the programme, in his conversation with Edward Seckerton, Barrie Kosky responded to the suggestion that we “will care about the people in this piece” with an assertion that “You do, which I always find quite difficult”, and this I feel is the heart of the problem with his conception, which focuses overwhelmingly on melancholia, loss and hell as abstract concepts and overlooks the human, and redemptive, dimension of the myth. The problem is clarified when Kosky remarks that he is mystified about the reasons why Jupiter appears for a second time, notes the brothers’ extreme self-sacrifices and rewards them by transporting them to the stars. But this, surely, is the heart of the piece? Nobility of spirit and self-sacrifice underpin the unbreakable bonds between brothers.

Castor_ENO_03.gifLaura Tatulescu as Phoebe, Sophie Bevan as Telaïre, Andrew Rupp as High Priest of Jupiter and Henry Waddington as Jupiter

Such nobility seemed lacking at crucial moments in the production. Thus, when Pollux shows such admirable self-denial in relinquishing Télaïre and endorsing her marriage to his brother, in Kosky’s eyes Castor should demonstrate his appreciation of his sibling’s selflessness by cavorting wildly like an over-excited adolescent. Similarly, when Jupiter shows Pollux — who has agreed to give up his immortality in return for Castor’s freedom — a vision of the heavenly delights which he would enjoy in eternity, Pollux’s unswerving selflessness embodies the essential truth of human, brotherly love. However, here the parade of the pleasures of paradise — the squirming and squealing sisters, pre-pubescent in gingham dresses and white ankle socks — seems more like to send Pollux fleeing rapidly to Hades rather than clutching selfishly at the rewards of immortality.

As is perhaps apparent, much was asked of the singers: they endured on-stage burial, clambered upon precarious mounds, sang principal arias bedecked in Hallowe’en hoods, flung themselves beneath dangerously descending backdrops in a manner which would have impressed 007 himself — and they performed gamely, bravely and at times wondrously, coping well with the particular demands of the French ornamentation.

The heroic journeys undertaken primarily find their equivalent in lengthy musical episodes of recitative, music of great intensity and flexibility, characterised by subtle nuances and troubling contradictions. The rapid changes of tempo, tonality and instrumentation were most pertinently appreciated, and their dramatic meaning conveyed, by Roderick Williams as Pollux. He had no problems with the registral demands of the role, producing sincere gravity at the bottom and vibrant earnestness at top. Dignified throughout, even when dragged violently around the stage by his feet, by the enraged Lyncaeus, Williams’ rich, beautiful baritone conveyed a gamut of emotions from despair and disillusion to happiness and hope.

The role of Castor demands a light, high tenor capable of agile passage work and ringing projection; Allan Clayton proved himself skilled in both regards, as he drew the audience into his tragic journey.

Télaïre has all the best tunes, and Sophie Bevan certainly made the most of them. Her second act aria mourning the death of Castor was spell-binding in its beauty and elegance, and was wonderfully underpinning by expressive playing by the bassoon and flutes.

As Phébé, Laura Tatulescu’s was dramatically compelling, but while her voice is one of power and penetration, her rendition was not always wholly in keeping with the French baroque style. She did not always produce a consistent tone or sustain a long line, which made both musical and dramatic sense, in the extended recitatives.

Ed Lyon was superb in his two minor roles, as the Athlete and Mercury. His vigorous, nimble high tenor eased through the florid passage work; indeed the athleticism of his singing in the former role was in marked contrast to his visual presence as Mercury: for this was a droll Mercury, his wings flapping limply as lamely flopped about — more Eric Morecombe or Mr Bean than soaring servant of the gods.

As Jupiter, Henry Waddington was secure but not as authoritative as he might have been; but then he did spend the entire opera with a black veil masking his face which can’t have helped establish an impression of superhuman majesty. Bass Andrew Rupp demonstrated striking focus as Jupiter’s High Priest, though even he had to battle against his skeletal mask and trailing white fingers (à la Edward Scissorhands?).

The orchestra of ENO, reduced in size, coped admirably with the noisy intrusions from the stage. The instrumentalists were raised up from the deep pit, to enhance balance and clarity, and this afforded a rare view at the Coliseum of the conductor and players. From the first, Curnyn adopted a flexible, muscle style, aiming for springy rhythms. Although in the overture some of the string playing was a little laboured, and the ensemble not always precise, when warmed up the instrumentalists gave an energised reading of Rameau’s robust rhythmic score; by the end, a truly thrilling fleetness characterised the rapid string motifs. Curnyn was ever alert to Rameau’s varied and idiosyncratic instrumental textures, and impressively realised the radical musical architecture of the form, with its fluid movement between recitative, arioso, dance and chorus.

The ENO chorus, having been asked to cavort, giggle, strip and adopt an array of silly costumes, sang with conviction. Occasionally, particularly when huddled in a gaggle at the rear of the stage, they struggled to keep up with the propelling tempi in the pit, but presumably that will improve with familiarity as the run proceeds.

Amanda Holden’s translation was uncontroversial although, in the light of the bare stage platform and other idiosyncratic directorial decisions, there were some non sequiturs. Holden did not quite rise to the challenges presented by long recitatives in eighteenth-century French, and the rhythmic patterns of some phrases was unnatural and awkward; moreover, she often changed syllable on the resolving pitch of rising cadential motifs, which seemed rather clunky and ‘unpoetic’.

Commenting on the effect of his mingling of realism and fantasy, Kosky concludes: “It becomes apparent that we’re actually going nowhere: hell is earth, and earth is hell, and heaven is hell and it’s on earth.” Despite my own misgivings, there was admittedly much applause for the cast and creators at the curtain call (and a few howls too); so my own view may be unrepresentative … but at times it felt as if this production really was going nowhere, and that hell was indeed “here and now”; fortunately some heavenly singing and celestial playing redeemed matters.

Claire Seymour

Click here for video clips and other information regarding this production.

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