sun 19/11/2017

Castor and Pollux, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Castor and Pollux, English National Opera

Castor and Pollux, English National Opera

Directorial pseudishness mars otherwise very fine ENO debut for Rameau

On the run: Sophie Bevan's Télaïre grief-stricken at Castor's final betrayal

The English National Opera were taking quite a gamble with last night's Rameau premiere. The daunting basics? A 250-year-old French opera that hasn't yet been properly adopted by its homeland, let alone by Britain; a mildly autistic mythological plot that eulogises the ordered loyalties of brotherly love over the messy complications of sexual desire; and a director, Barrie Kosky, Intendant at Berlin's Komische Oper, where you're not really allowed to break wind without the help of a dramaturg.

Katrin Lea Tag's minimalist set took the gamble one step further. From start to finish, the entire intergalactic drama of Castor and Pollux - the visits to heaven, hell, the battlefield and starry firmament - was shoved into a large plywood box. The space revealed itself to be a cleverer contraption than at first seemed possible. It behaved like a Petri dish in which Kosky could closer inspect the relationships and emotions of the leading foursome. Within its four bare walls, each and every knot in the tangled sexual interplay between the sisters Télaïre (Sophie Bevan) and Phébé (Laura Tatulescu) and the brothers Castor (Allan Clayton) and Pollux (Roderick Williams), was able to be investigated with greater clearity than ever.

The endlessly choppy emotional surface of the recitative duetted beautifully with the traumas on stage

Yet what Kosky gave with one hand, he took with the other. Scenes of great clarity were intermittently dashed against the rocks of pretension. A smorgasbord of cockily obscure, pseudo-artistic interventions (mostly second-rate Maurizio Cattelan) collared us: a huge smoking slope of earth, a Stasi Jupiter in top hat and veil, and more sliding plywood walls than you could shake a Pole at. Several tableaux left their imprint: the eternal panty-drop striptease of the heavenly pleasures, the fingering of Phébé on an ash mound, the dance of the disembodied office workers, the slow-mo silent screams from the inhabitants of hell. But mostly I was left wondering whether this was where Frieze Art Fair had dumped their unsold leftovers.

Rameau withstood it all. In fact, he proved more than an able partner to Amanda Holden's revelatory translation and Kosky's intermittent psychological sculpting. The endlessly choppy emotional surface of the recitative duetted beautifully with the traumas on stage, especially when Castor finally betrays Télaïre and leaves her for his brother. In Pollux's endless journeying, Rameau hints at all manner of worldly and otherworldly scenarios. To this overflowing cupboard of allusive musical colour Kosky could only add an untidy sock drawer of ideas.

The singers were extraordinary. With Kosky having whimsically translated the gradations of human emotion into various sprints (smacking into walls, running in circles etc), Sophie Bevan was forced on a small marathon as Télaïre. It didn't stop her from delivering a flawless vocal performance, technically, stylistically and emotionally. Laura Tatulescu's embittered Phébé was the ideal foil, both voice and presence beautifully shaded.

Roderick Williams's emotional journey as Pollux from the divine bouncer to the haunted and hell-bound lost soul was done with great conviction. Allan Clayton's Castor was astounding, his piercingly ornamented aria, "Séjour de l'éternelle paix", one of the highlights of the evening.

One could overlook the odd accident from conductor Christian Curnyn, such was the quality - lean, shapely and clean - otherwise of the orchestral playing, particularly from the burring bassoons and breezy period flutes. Perhaps a little more emotion could have been extracted. No doubt that will come as they familiarise themselves with the piece. One couldn't overlook the raggedness and skew-whiff balancing of the choir, however.

No matter. No one gets Rameau right from top to toe on a first go. What's most important is that, despite the flaws, it worked. Rameau was shown to be doable. The original 1737 version, with its more measured and satisfying emotional arc, might have worked a little better. Happily, a few of the more highly prized numbers from the earlier score were snuck back into the 1754 revision we heard. Still, a very decent first showing for Rameau at the ENO. More please.

Comments

Ed Lyons also sang brilliantly as Mercury - perhaps he would have stolen the show, had he stayed on for the curtain call.

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