The operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau have always been revered in his native France, but in Britain he’s the Baroque composer everyone overlooks. Bar for bar, you might at times think you were listening to Handel, but the momentum is different: where Handel punctuates his action with long set-piece arias, Rameau’s music comes in a continuous flow.
Full marks to English National Opera for staging one of his finest works, and for hiring Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn to conduct it.
The moment the overture begins we are in a sound-world far removed from Handel’s: whereas his textures are string-dominated, Rameau’s are pervaded by flutes and bassoons, giving a very different kind of transparency.
The story of Castor and Pollux could be classed as a bromance. Phoebe and her sister Telaire are both in love with Castor, who is killed in battle. Telaire persuades Pollux – who is immortal – to restore his twin brother Castor to life; though Pollux loves her too, he nobly agrees to take Castor’s place in Hades, even though itmeans renouncing his own immortality. Castor refuses to accept his brother’s sacrifice; their reward is to be installed among the stars.
The cast is particularly strong, with tenor Allan Clayton and baritone Roderick Williams as the twins, sopranos Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu as the sisters, and with Ed Lyon as Mercury and Henry Waddington as Jupiter. The problems stem from director BarrieKosky’s decision to turn it all into a cross between a fight-club spectacular and a voyeuristic soft-porn romp. The stage is a sand-coloured marble box invaded by a giant dunghill; the Hockney- influenced costumes are surreal; the chorus serves variously as friends and demons, but most of the time the members hurl themselves about – as dotheprincipals – as though in the last stages of hysterical dementia.
It’s all terribly erratic, with occasional flashes of brilliance lighting up long tracts of silliness. “Phoebe, your labours areinvain,” sings Mercury to one of the sisters, as she works herself towards orgasm with the aid of a mysterious hand which rises up between her legs; we’ll pass over the Lolita stripteases. Yet the singing of this decorously heroic work is first class. ENO will trumpet it as a succès de scandale, but it’s actually a great chance missed.
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