It comes one of those nights where you really expect to hate the performance as on paper all odds are against it. On Friday I was expecting to hate the translation, the staging, the very idea of having baroque opera at the Coliseum. That was not a very promising start to it!
The performance was of the revised version of the opera from 1754 with some additions from the earlier 1737 version. The orchestra was made up of modern instruments with baroque bows and wooden flutes. conducted by Christian Curnyn (quite frequently aided by a black pencil in place of a baton) raised above the deep orchestra pit and almost meeting the front of the stage.
The set can only be described as a cross of a Finnish sauna with a garage made out of birch panelling from Ikea. As you can see from the photo above, a large box with a number of full length screens that create compartments in three different zones. For the final act the back panel disappears for Jupiter to arrive. Having a box containing the action and also helping to amplify the voices in the large space has become a convention for modern directed early operas. A similar construction was used at the Royal Opera House last year for Niobe Regina di Tebe. The set design is by Katrin Lea Tag.
Barrie Kosky made his London directorial debut with this production and from the very first minutes it became clear his direction was very physical. There are a number of macho fighting scenes between the two brothers and the eventual murderer of the mortal Castor. With blooded fists and abundant kicking and bashes against the side of the box. After the killing of Castor, Pollux in turn avenges the death by killing the perpetrator, with the choir dragging the bloodied body around the stage reminiscent of the recent footage of the capture and execution of Gadaffi in Libya. A truly chilling image not expected in the quaint world of the baroque.
Due to that hardcore ultra violent base framework it will not come as a surprise to mention that the dances provided by Rameau are not interpreted on stage by ballet dancers. The first couple become almost party pieces for the choir and later on the singers are acting and even running around the stage to fill the emptiness. In some cases is more successful than others and since the ballets contain some of his most beautiful melodies I am grateful that so many of them have been included.
The main feature of the stage for a large part of the evening is a humongous mount of slate coloured sand. Creating a hill for the singers to run up to and a portal between hell and earth. On first appearance the screen lifts and the mount shows up shrouded in smoke, not sure if they were going for a Mount Olympus like look, but in reality it looked more like a steaming compost head (a rather unfortunate image to have in one’s head for the duration of the evening). Knowing how tight the budgets are at ENO I can understand how this solution was chosen for its flexibility and visual impact. The first proper use for the heap of sand is the mourning by Telaire (Sophie Bevan) of the bloodied body of Castor (Allan Clayton), who she buries during her powerful aria that expresses her love and sadness. The very burial of the body in such an exposed fashion does have an overtly emotional impact on the proceedings and for me gave added depth and humanity. Much has been written about the nudity and the two maidens of the many panties that accost Pollux. They were not really necessary to the action but added a wry interest in a couple of pretty innocuous moments in the score. Watching a programme with Katie Price is bound to be more shocking than some of those unclothed moments. Most notoriously the mount becomes the site for a masturbation scene with Phebe lying with legs spread and a disembodied arm projecting from the sand, pleasuring her. A slightly puzzling moment before she meets her maker!
The performance of the orchestra was very satisfying and the conducting was clearly supportive of the singers. The three out of the four protagonists were absolutely excellent. Roderick Williams and his velvety baritonal timbre gave us a humble, selfless but grand Pollux who managed to look great singing for 20 minutes in his underwear 😉 Allan Clayton’s Castor was tragic and brave with raw physicality and a voice full of emotional charge and ebullient spark. Sophie Bevan gave us two spectacular arias that truly embraced the rawness of the material and was not scared to show total commitment and fluency. For me the character of Phebe (Laura Tatulescu) was not fleshed appropriately for us to care. The singing was good enough (with the odd sharp vowel) but she seemed to have to reach the end of her range to hit a few of the high notes, looking a touch uncomfortable. Entrusting the central characters to an excellent young team was a fantastic move. The stage is buzzing with energy the total opposite of the static stagings of old.
The translation was much better flowing than expected but sometimes did create obstacles e.g. when Bevan was trying to trill while uttering the word weeping…it just looked unnecessarily difficult. But the performances by the cast made any translation issues fade into insignificance.
Despite a few flow glitches and some oddities with the direction. This presentation of Castor and Pollux is a wonderful night out, filled with excellent singing and a plethora of quirky little details, like the finale where the two brothers depart after they become stars by Jupiter, leaving behind their shoes. Which they get covered in silver dust that falls from the ceiling in two infinite streams sparkling like thousands of stars. A coup de théâtre that closes the evening with a hint of magic.
It is running till 1 December, if you are in London and have a passing interest or curiosity for French baroque opera, give it a try, surely you are bound to be impressed by the singing if not the production as a whole. We should be celebrating and supporting new singers of this calibre, it’s all good and well to pop in to see the swan song of Placido Domingo at Covent Garden but the young artists that are getting their big break with great repertoire are at the ENO, indeed they create the future of opera as their PR suggests.
If you can’t make it, there will be a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 November, tune in. (Edit: It was only actually broadcast on 14 January 2012)
Tweets from the night:
Comment on The Observer website:
Castor and Pollux in Rehearsal video