Rameau: Castor and Pollux

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 25 October 2011 3 stars

Ed Lyon and Laura Tatulescu (Photo © Alastair Muir)The best thing about ENO's first ever Rameau production – certainly the one aspect that critics and audience are likely to agree on – was the orchestral performance. Under the spectacularly energetic direction of period-performance specialist Christian Curnyn, the vibrato-free ENO Orchestra was on top form. The strings found an impressive balance between vivacity and tidiness, always underpinned by a rich, earthy bass, while the woodwind (bolstered by imported baroque flutes) provided some deliciously liquid solos. Yet above all it was the sheer quality of sound, a potent cocktail of languor and irrepressible excitement, which grabbed the attention.

Strange, though, to be left feeling distinctly the wrong side of vintage (and this while wearing jeans amidst the twinsets and pearls) for wanting to listen to, as well as look at, an opera so rarely performed: in this case to stare down the full monty of 'adult content' on stage and concentrate, determinedly, on the pit. But then Barrie Kosky's uncompromising vision of the opera doesn't leave much room for anything other than itself.

The entire production (designed by Kosky's usual collaborator Katrin Lea Tag) is staged inside a cavernous wooden box: the main route in and out is through a series of retractable back walls. Lighting (by Franck Evin, the third member of Team Kosky) is stark; scenery non-existent except for an enormous mound of soil in which various bodies are buried and from which others emerge.

The costumes (sinister variations on the office wear of yore) hint at horror films that we can't quite locate. The chorus moves through The Office-style disco moves in suits to heavy make-up and disturbingly childish garb – round-collared dresses in hideous pastels, bows in the hair, all with a spot of cross-dressing.

There were patterned knickers in abundance, ample Y-fronts (white), nightmarish sackcloth masks and, for a chosen few, full, baffling nudity. ('Oh dear!', murmured one stalls inhabitant nearby, struggling to stifle giggles.)

Castor and Pollux, the fraternal protagonists, get off lightly with their faintly 1970s suits, as does Télaïre, their shared love interest, in plain girly dresses. Phébé, her sister and rival, provides her own cleavage and is clad in a dress short enough to allow for the puzzling intrusion of wandering digits from a hand emerging (bodyless) from a hole in the earth. Most effective, without a doubt, are Jupiter's veil, top hat, enormous double-breasted grey suit and High Priest's white gloves with creepily long fingers. Their presence at the back of the stage during Pollux's vision of heavenly delights (a threesome with giggling adolescent girls, since you ask) was genuinely chilling.

There were some very effective moments, often set up as scenic tableaux: the first time we see the great mound of earth, for instance, completely dominating the stage, with Castor's body laid out along its ridge and Télaïre, heartbroken, at the top. Or an instrumental dance movement, accompanied by manic dancing from the chorus, visible only from the knees down behind one of those wooden screens. Or the closing scene, with Castor and Pollux ascended to immortality, leaving only their dress shoes in twin pools of spotlight, showered from above with streams of glitter. But why did Télaïre then run laps around them, her bare feet smacking against hard wooden floor as the orchestra played the beautiful final moments of the opera? More impractical still were some of the earlier scenes, in which 'physical theatre' was taken to an even greater extreme, with (admittedly impressive) fights, and endless running across the stage, more often than not in clattering heels or hard-soled brogues. Yet again, the motivation for such outbursts was at times frustratingly opaque; but the resulting impression was one of profound mistrust of Rameau's ability to hold audience interest.

Sophie Bevan, Roderick Williams and Laura Tatulescu (Photo © Alastair Muir)Amidst this profusion of strong visual images, the principals impressed with their dramatic abilities as much as their singing. Gone are the days when operatic singers and their dignity dominated the production: we watched as Castor was buried on stage, while elsewhere couplets were delivered from beneath the weight of other bodies, or on top of them.

Allan Clayton (Castor) dealt admirably with what is an extremely high part, sounding only occasionally strained at the very top, and at his best in his arresting post-resurrection aria in the final act. As Télaïre, his ENO Young Singer colleague Sophie Bevan found real beauty of tone and obviously relished the relative lack of vibrato. Laura Tatulescu (Phébé) was dramatically compelling, but at times vocally overwhelming in the upper register – a problem exacerbated (if not created) by the hard, reflective surfaces of the wooden box.

As Pollux, Roderick Williams could usefully have drawn on a more solid bass register, but nonetheless provided some very poignant moments. In the smaller roles, Henry Waddington's Jupiter and Andrew Rupp's High Priest were suitably authoritative, while Ed Lyon's Mercury (another stratospheric French tenor part) was a delight to watch and his singing crystal clear, if a little raw at the very top. Kosky's box caused problems for the singers throughout, however, making both tuning and ensemble more difficult, as well as affecting the sound quality of the voices. That much of the singing had to be delivered from the very front of the stage seems symptomatic of a production in which the musical performance was present and correct (and much more than correct) despite, rather than as part of, any directorial intervention.

By Flora Willson

Photos © Alastair Muir