Tuesday 25 October 2011

Castor et Pollux, English National Opera, 24 October 2011

The Coliseum

(sung in English, as Castor and Pollux)

Telaïre (Sophie Bevan) and Castor (Allan Clayton)
Image: Charlotte van Berckel
Telaïre – Sophie Bevan
Phébé – Laura Tatulescu
Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury/Athlete – Ed Lyon

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Christian Curnyn (conductor)

My first Rameau opera in the theatre – and certainly not out of indifference: even Gluck, Rameau’s great and scandalously-neglected successor, fares better than the composer of Castor et Pollux. In recent years, I have enthusiastically – at least, I hope so – spoken to undergraduates of works such as Hippolyte et Aricie and Le Temple de la gloire, yet have never previously been able to point to actually, existing performance they might attend. ENO has never previously performed an opera by Rameau; the Royal Opera has staged Platée, once. The problem is not England's alone: German houses are little better, and as for Italy, let alone further afield... France, as one might expect, does a little better, though Rameau has been well and truly captured in his homeland by those Pierre Boulez so memorably dubbed ‘specialists in nullity’. There once were exceptions, whether French or foreign: for instance, Roger Désormière, Hans Rosbaud, Sir Antony Lewis, and Raymond Leppard (who conducted Monteverdi but not Rameau at Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne, yet led a memorable Dardanus in Paris). Boulez himself conducted Hippolyte et Aricie in concert in 1964. But those days are long distant. Where the music has more recently been performed, it has largely been confined either to those who inclined to unpleasant-sounding pseudo-archaeology, or to those who would trivialise the French Baroque by treating it as merely fanciful spectacle, perhaps to be ‘updated’, but hardly to be taken seriously as drama. I was intrigued, then, to see what Barry Kosky, whose Abu Ghraib-style Iphigénie en Tauride I so greatly admired in Berlin, would make of Castor et Pollux, and also how the ENO Orchestra, ‘Baroque’ bows and flutes notwithstanding, would fare.

Pollux (Roderick Williams) and actors
Image: Alastair Muir

Let us consider the production first. Kosky says many of the right things – and some more questionable things – in a programme interview. In the former camp we read ‘firstly – and as with all of my productions – I have to understand the architecture of the music,’ whilst in the latter, he claims, ‘what you have to do is “de-Frenchify”’ Rameau. The problem concerning the former remark is that, whatever the intent, the architecture rarely comes across in terms of what one sees on stage. Perhaps the greatest problem concerns the ballet music, of which there is a great deal, Rameau taking dance every bit as seriously as Tchaikovsky as a force for dramatic expression. Kosky’s handling works better when the dances are simply the background for something else taking place on stage. However, movement that veered closer to dance – why not collaborate with a ballet company? – tends to be merely embarrassing, the faux disco-dancing in the opening scene an apparent nadir, to be trumped by poor Télaïre’s running round and round the stage in a circle at the end. She even has to continue when the music had stopped, this far from the only instance in which noisy stage business threatens to drown out the music, a strange way of responding to the latter. That is a pity, since Katrin Lea Tag’s designs are stylish, at least, and ought to have provided a setting for the human drama upon which Kosky seems to have wished to focus. (Though here, of course, we come across a perennial problem: what, then, to make of the gods?) The creatures of Hades are weird and wonderful too, a fine example of how one might engender both Baroque fantasy in a modern yet not effete sense.

Image: Alastair Muir

Kosky seems keen to play up the role of the women, Télaïre and Phébé. He praises the 1754 version of the opera – essentially that which is used, though some numbers from Rameau’s earlier score are interpolated – for dealing more interestingly with them. Fair enough, but the extra emphasis placed upon them, that final scene for instance, tends to unbalance the drama, which should probably be more focused upon Castor and Pollux. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no hint of the homoerotic in their relationship – Kosky resolutely avoids that in his Iphigénie en Tauride too – but a great deal of sexual experience for the sisters, much of which comes across as merely silly. A hand emerging from Castor’s burial mound – consider that, Dr Freud – acts as a tool of pleasure for a while, until even the recipient tires of it. (We had done so quite some time before.) Underwear is a particular interest: a couple of actresses have an apparently endless supply, constantly shedding it, only to reveal more underneath. Many others end up walking around aimlessly with underwear around their ankles: at one point, the stage resembles a class for mature potty-training. One would have to be possessed by rather unusual tastes to find any of those goings-on erotic in the slightest. I was left longing either for a more ‘conventional’ production or for the likes of Calixto Bieito.

Castor and Telaïre on the burial mound
Image: Alastair Muir

Christian Curnyn led a lively, varied account of the score, despite a few lapses in ensemble. Dances were well pointed, the drum beat especially welcome. There was rightly no rigid distinction made between air and recitative: in that respect, Rameau is already close to Gluck, to the Mozart of Idomeneo, even to Berlioz. I longed for a little more warmth from the strings: is vibrato that abhorrent an instrument of expression? Eighteenth-century writers certainly did not think so. There was, however, much to enjoy from the woodwind contribution, not least the splendidly Gallic-sounding bassoons. A nod was made to the size of the Coliseum in raising the pit, but the music would have benefited further from a more sizeable band, one of the peculiarities of contemporary Rameau performance being a refusal – financially-motivated? – to recognise the size of orchestra he, let alone modern houses, expected. The singing was, with one exception, excellent, the finest aspect of the performance. That exception was the chorus, which time and time again fell glaringly out of sync with the pit. Whether this were the fault of conductor, chorus, unreasonable directorial demands, or a combination of the three, was difficult to tell, but it was a repeated blemish impossible to ignore.

Mercury (Ed Lyon) and Pollux
Image: Charlotte von Berckel
The soloists, though, managed to make as fine a case for Rameau in English as one has any right to expect, Amanda Holden’s sensitive translation happily assisting. It would be absurd to claim that there is no loss, just as it would be with performances of Racine, Corneille, and Molière, for the vocal writing is so tied not only to the sounds – and endings – of the French language but also to its very particular declamatory style. Yet not only did the cast deliver the words with conviction, we heard a real effort to nudge the English sounds in a way that blended with the notes on the page. Allan Clayton’s Castor sounded as if a true haute-contre, a remarkable achievement by any standards. Roderick Williams was outstanding as ever as Pollux, his tone as seamlessly adapted to the composer’s style as if he were a French bassoonist, his diction beyond reproach. Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu portrayed the sisters as if they had been performing Rameau all their lives, natural ebb and flow hand in hand with dramatic commitment. Ed Lyon surmounted the weird limping handicap of Kosky’s direction to emerge an epitome of vocal style, neither precious nor overblown, but elegant and dramatically ambivalent. Henry Waddington and Andrew Rupp both impressed in their roles too. For once, there really was not a weak link in the cast.

Phébé (Laura Tatulescu), Telaïre, and Pollux
Image: Alastair Muir

Whatever the shortcomings of Kosky’s production, it is a wonderful thing to see – and more importantly, to hear – Rameau at the Coliseum. One can but hope that this will prove a turning point, not only with respect to Rameau but also to predecessors such as Lully and Charpentier. Tragédie lyrique is in so many respects truer than high Baroque opera seria to modern dramatic sensibilities that the current prevalence of the latter, at least in Handelian guise, is mystifying. (It is not, of course, that Handel is not a great composer, but oratorio form generally permitted his musico-dramatic genius to blaze far more strongly.) It would nevertheless be gratifying if future stagings might take more seriously the particularity and ingenuity Ramellian musical construction. Boulez said in an interview prior to the aforementioned concert performance of Hippolyte et Aricie that what he found ‘most interesting’ in the work was ‘the tragic side (not the mythology), together with the choruses and great flexibility of the construction. I love composers who construct their music.’ Messiaen, also present, commented, in what must have sounded very much rather like the proverbial red rag to the bull, ‘Basically, you have very French tastes.’ Messiaen’s star pupil most likely erred in claiming ‘this style of opera’ to be ‘terribly dated’, but a sympathetic approach, both on stage and in the pit, remains vital – in every sense.