Rameau’s operas have never had much of a look-in this side of the Channel compared to those of Handel, and given that the English National Opera has probably done more than any other opera company to reveal Handel as a dramatic genius, they are more qualified than any to introduce Rameau to a London audience.
Of course Rameau has been heard in the capital before but this is the first time one of his operas has received a complete staging by either of the London houses and there can be no doubt that ENO’s new staging of Castor and Pollux is a blinder. Indeed it’s a long time since I’ve been so completely engaged, enthralled and ultimately blown away at the Coli, and whilst I can understand some of the press’ hostility towards Barrie Kosky’s staging, its dramatic sensibilities and sheer theatricality come as a blessed relief after recent dead-in-the-water stagings of Lucrezia Borgia by Mike Figgis or Rufus Norris’ execrable, listless Don Giovanni.
Whatever one thinks of Kosky’s mise-en-scène, and I for one am still reeling at its brilliance and audacity, there can be no quibbles about the superb musical performance under baroque specialist Christopher Curnyn. The pit is raised, so the audience can see the players, but far from being a distraction their visible presence adds to the theatrical frisson of the evening. Curnyn coaxes brilliant playing from all sections of the orchestra and he opts for a judicious mix of original instruments (wooden flutes) and modern strings, who with due period practice play without vibrato. The results are revelatory. Rameau makes more use of the woodwind than Handel – textures are always clear and as dance features prominently in French baroque opera, there’s suitably sturdy support from the percussion department.
Kosky’s brand of Regietheater (directors’ theatre) has its detractors, but there’s no denying he knows how to direct singers and he is an expert at creating arresting visual tableaux. He and his designer Katrin Lea Tag conjur up stage pictures to begin with of the utmost simplicity – the set is a giant plywood box – costumes are modern, brothers Castor and Pollux wear lounge suits – yet within such a utilitarian setting, the drama between the main characters is clearly etched. Maybe there’s too much running around the set, but I’d rather have that and the slightly over the top physicality of it all than inert stand-and-deliver histrionics.
Kosky doesn’t shirk the violence, sly touches of humour, or sexual menace that exist in the piece and when Pollux journeys to hell to retrieve the soul of his brother Castor, things turn very strange with lashings of sexual ambivalence – Phoebe even gets finger-fucked by a disembodied hand, and some of the actors strip off. It’s one hell of an acid-trip to be sure. The final visual image of the evening, where Castor and Pollux are turned into celestial constellations, is perhaps the most arresting. Before heading off into the night sky they remove their shoes, and each pair is bathed in light whilst a cascading torrent of glitter descends from the flies. Pure magic.
As Castor and Pollux, Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams give the performances of their careers. Clayton is a revelation, singing Rameau’s demanding high-lying passages with consummate ease and glorious heroic tone all evening. Williams is the perfect foil, an artist at the height of his powers, producing wonderfully burnished singing throughout the evening, and as I mentioned earlier, Kosky draws vivid portrayals from both of them. Likewise soprano Sophie Bevan has done nothing finer – she sings Telaira with purity, fervour and a thrilling incisiveness. Laura Tatulescu holds her own as Phoebe and there are splendid cameos from Ed Lyon as Mercury and Henry Waddington as Jupiter.
All in all ENO’s first ever staging of a Rameau opera is a knockout success. Catch it while you can.