fri 14/06/2024

Castor et Pollux, St John's Smith Square | reviews, news & interviews

Castor et Pollux, St John's Smith Square

Castor et Pollux, St John's Smith Square

A concert performance of Rameau rich with musical drama and delight

Ashley Riches: This former Jette Parker Young Artist was a poised and darkly serious Pollux

An evening of Rameau was never going to be a neutral event. Last Friday all things French became painfully, irretrievably politicised, and while there were no speeches or acknowledgements last night, when Christian Curnyn dispatched the opera’s final ensemble not in fanfares and crescendos but the slyest of diminuendos, it was the perfect response –a Gallic shrug of a gesture, defiant in its charm and wit.

Castor and Pollux shouldn’t work in concert – especially not, as in St John’s Smith Square, without surtitles. Rameau’s music describes and emotes, but never really dramatises, relying on staging and dance to bring it from beautiful stasis to movement. But such is Curnyn’s giddy, propulsive energy that he and his Early Opera Company needed nothing to supplement the music in this concert performance.

It helped that the opera’s central quartet was made up of four exceptional young singers – artists we’re still getting to know, but who are each here for the long haul. Most recently seen across town in ENO’s La bohème, Ashley Riches was a poised, darkly serious Pollux. Though occasionally colouring outside the lines with his vibrato, his baritone offered a tonal anchor in a cast dominated by upper voices, while his emotional intensity held the drama through Rameau’s many orchestral ritornellos.

Joining Riches in an unusually happy love triangle were Samuel Boden and Katherine Watson, with Sophie Junker as jealous love rival Phoebe, condemning herself to Hell before anyone else can do it for her. The standout here was Watson (pictured above right). Hers is a quality voice, all ease and fullness, with a welcome darkness shading even its upper register. Her “Tristes apprets” swelled and bloomed with tragedy, before a quick sleight of hand saw her become a brittle, flirtatious follower of Hebe for the exquisite “Que nos jeux comblent”. Junker, too, did double duty, brightly projected (if underused) as Phoebe, but vocally at her sweetest and most beguiling as a spirit for “Dans ces doux aziles”.

Though lacking much by way of blade, Samuel Boden’s tenor (Boden pictured left) is so velvet-tactile as to distract from its small proportions. His warmly expressive Castor was an effective foil for Watson’s Telaire, though there was strain in the voice as he struggled occasionally to assert himself over the orchestra. Cameos from the excellent Callum Thorpe (Jupiter) and Zachary Wilder (fearless for the absurdly high “Eclatez fieres trompettes”) did the business, but the award for Best Supporting Role went to the orchestra. Flutes duetted with mossy softness, a tambourine did virtuosic battle all on its own, while always in the centre Curnyn and his strings kept the engine ticking in dancing rhythms.

French Baroque has a tough time in the UK. Audiences aren’t guaranteed in the way they are for Bach or Handel, and it takes a brave venue to host (or an even braver company to stage) any of the many operas by Rameau, Lully and Charpentier that are so very worth performing. Perhaps a solid Friday-night crowd will persuade St Johns Smith Square to continue to mine this rich musical seam? If and when they do, I’ll be first in the queue.

Watson's is a quality voice, all ease and fullness, with a welcome darkness shading even its upper register


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters