English National Opera – Castor and Pollux

Castor and Pollux – Lyric tragedy in five acts to a libretto by Pierre-Joseph Bernard [sung in an English translation by Amanda Holden, with surtitles]

Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Télaïre – Sophie Bevan
Phébé – Laura Tatalescu
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury / Athlete – Ed Lyon

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Christian Curnyn

Barrie Kosky – Director
Katrin Lea Tag – Designer
Franck Evin – Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 24 October, 2011
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) are not exactly regular fare on UK shores; indeed, this is English National Opera’s first Rameau staging. Barrie Kosky’s direction of Castor and Pollux may not appeal to all tastes but it reveals many interesting strands from the story and presents them in a fairly uncompromising way. There is a lot of blood and violence in the early part of the narrative centred about Castor’s murder by Lyncaeus and his subsequent death at the hands of Pollux. There is also a deal of emotional tension resulting from the brotherly bonding of the title parts and their conflicting romantic interest focussed on their common love of Télaïre and repulsion of her sister Phébé. The production charts emotions at their rawest and most-immediate in the human world, when contrasted to the Immortals’ everlasting enchantments, to the inert shadow-land of the Elysian Fields and the restless activity of the Underworld.

The depiction of sex and sexuality in these different worlds is graphically, sometimes amusingly enacted, Pollux rejecting the temptation of everlasting pleasures being an instance, and the general lack of reaction of the shadows in to monsters and nude figures was telling. Best of all was the depiction of Télaïre’s reaction to Jupiter’s decision to place Castor and Pollux to their places in the heavenly constellation leaving her on earth to experience despair, suicidal ideation and finally an acceptance of her lot.

Katrin Lea Tag’s adaptable box set with its moving panels helped the changes of setting and the pace of the drama from flagging. The use of piles of mud and soil to bury the characters and to portray passage of characters between earth and elsewhere was strong. Her use of colour in the costuming was subtle, giving certain characters – Phébé in particular – a presence that extended far beyond her vocal contribution, and necessarily so. The image of the two heroes being transformed to stars was also effective.

The orchestra, elevated in the pit and visible to all, produced a sound that was notable for clarity and immediacy – an experiment with the cavernous Coliseum acoustic that was an unqualified success. The musicians played as if possessed under the direction of Christian Curnyn who demonstrated an unerring feel for tempo allied to the drama and who kept the sprightly moments rhythmically exact and the slower passages superbly intense – the sudden change of mood at Castor’s death was the shock it should have been.

These musical qualities extend to the singers. Decorations and trills carried great impact and all the principals were often required to deliver physically demanding stagecraft. What was startling about the voices was their individual beauties and their blends. As Castor, Allan Clayton’s mellifluous high and fluid tenor with its hint of metal was heard to advantage. Sophie Bevan’s bright soprano with its warm middle register was also one of the vocal plusses. In duet their blend was mesmerising in its beauty. Roderick Williams’s baritone brought virility and passion in equal measure; he really knows about vocal colouring. His duetting with Clayton was also grateful on the ear. Laura Tatalescu’s darker voice allowed great contrast with Bevan, though their voices too proved compatible. All four were strong on both presence and diction, getting the words of Amanda Holden’s translation across with point and intensity.

In the smaller roles of Jupiter and his High Priest Henry Waddington and Andrew Rupp provided sterling support, and Ed Lyon as Mercury gave a strong rendition of the long and florid solo he is granted at his first appearance. The ENO Chorus was also on fine fettle and also game in their gyratory dancing and their choreographed activity.

Those who like Baroque opera extravagantly and traditionally staged will probably not like Kosky’s approach. However, I expect the staging will bring converts to Rameau as a dramatic composer, and that has to be good news.

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