This 2-DVD set was filmed at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam on 21 and 25 January 2008 and is a permanent record of a sumptuous, ambitious production of what has been generally described as Rameau's crowning achievement in the 'tragédie lyrique' genre. Rameau first set the story in 1737 and the opera was an immediate success: but seventeen years later Rameau dropped the prologue and made substantial revisions to the score as performed here. The changes are indeed substantial: I know a member of the Netherlands Opera company whose Opera Studies dissertation was on the differences between the 1737 and 1754 versions of Castor et Pollux! The later version is generally regarded as superior.
In an accompanying feature, Pierre Audi says that he regards Castor et Pollux as a 'Gesamtkunstwerk', its baroque elements bringing together singing, playing, dance and spectacle in a way that foreshadows Wagner's dream of total music theatre. And that is certainly how Audi and his production team tackle the work: every costume is cut from the same cloth (but dyed in different shades), every singer has an alter ego dancer who mirrors what the character is supposed to be thinking and feeling as the work progresses. The choreography is by Amir Hosseinpour and is absolutely characteristic of this gifted dance artist's style. His dancers move with fluidity and grace but staccato elements constantly intervene: their dance language reminds you of the torment that is never far from the four principal characters - Télaire because she has lost Castor, the brother she loved; Pollux because he has lost his only brother; Phébé because the brother she loves does not love her! And so the whole opera revolves ultimately around the generosity of spirit of Pollux, renouncing his own immortality and taking Castor's place in Hades so that Castor can be restored to life and to his loving Télaire. (Jupiter's intervention in Act Five to grant a happy ending is just tacked on to send us home feeling better about it all!)
This calls for a convincing dramatic and vocal portrayal of Pollux and, on the whole, Henk Neven gives a decent account of the role. His technique is solid and the voice has warmth in the middle register: I detected some variance in tone but put that down to the mixing of two performances four days apart. I was slightly less impressed by Finnur Bjarnson as Castor, who seemed to me to have intonation problems, not at the top of his voice, which was fine, but at odd moments throughout his performance. But as twins, the two singers interacted well and occupied the heart of Rameau's drama.
Anna Maria Panzarella as Télaire has all the best tunes, and performed the well-known 'Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux' with conviction and grace. Never having heard her live, I am uncertain whether or not her voice would fill a large house: it seemed to me to be a small-ish, dramatic soprano not quite in full bloom. I had high hopes of Véronique Gens, having been impressed in the concert hall by the luminosity and bloom she can bring to the projection of French text: but as the spurned Phébé, she seemed to me to be just below her best, although she delivered her Act Four aria 'Esprits, soutiens de mon pouvoir' with moving and lyrical grace. And although she is called for much of the time to look merely anguished or crushed, in statuesque poses onstage, she moves with commanding presence: when Gens is onstage, you watch her.
I have nothing but praise for Les Talens Lyriques and their conductor Christophe Rousset, who give us sprightly rhythms, some fine individual playing and good attention to musical detail throughout. The extended grace notes that are peppered throughout the score are all observed but with varying dynamic and emphasis, that help to bring the music up as fresh as new. A word too for excellent support from the Chorus of the Netherlands Opera, seated alongside the orchestra and making a strong musical impression whenever they are called to sing, while the dancers mime the action.
How does it work on DVD as a whole? I have to praise the enterprise that went into it, and I am delighted to see a Rameau masterpiece being performed onstage. But Audi's production, it seems to me, rather emphasises the static qualities of many of the arias in an over-controlling way. It is as if he wants the drama and the emotion inherent in this music to be expressed in the parallel narrative form of dance, and not by the acting singers themselves. Indeed, rehearsal clips included with the DVD show Audi doing just that: keeping his soloists under the tightest of tight reins, not allowing them any form of expansive gesture or movement. And yet the score tells me something different – there are probably more genuine conflicts of feeling between Castor, Pollux, Télaire and Phébé than in any other Rameau opera. So why reduce these four roles to declamatory singers? I feel a certain degree of frustration here.
Buy it as an interesting record of a Rameau experiment (the set, by the way, looks wonderful and is full of constantly changing geometric designs that must have taxed the computer software!) Buy it for a decently played and sung account of a terrific score, with no stand-out performances but a lot of good ensemble work. Do not buy it as a definitive production for our time – that it certainly is not. But it is certainly worth a listen.
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