Castor and Pollux, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2011

Originally composed in 1737 this opera was revised in 1754 and subsequently became Rameau’s most popular. Castor and Pollux are brothers, the former mortal, the latter immortal, and the start of the story is roughly that Castor is adored by Phoebe and her sister Telaira, who is betrothed to Pollux. He gives her up so she can marry his brother, but Phoebe arranges for Castor’s abduction and he is killed. All this is in the first of five acts, and was omitted from the original 1737 composition, which instead included a prologue involving Mars, Venus and other gods.

Pollux kils his brother's killer, all photos Alastair Muir

Quite rightly the ENO is putting on the revised version, with Christian Curnyn conducting the orchestra in a raised pit so that the sound comes out more clearly, and musically this was delightful. Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams were wonderfully strong as Castor and Pollux, carrying off their roles to perfection, and Sophie Bevan was a charmingly pure voiced Telaira. Rameau was a contemporary of Handel, but his music is quite different, eschewing recitatives and arias in favour of a harmonically intriguing development of the music.

Telaira with the dead Castor

This is an opera about deeply troubled characters, about melancholy and loss. The spurned Phoebe tells her sister that she, Phoebe will recover Castor from Hades if Telaira relinquishes her love for him, but in fact only Pollux can bring Castor back, and only by giving up immortality and taking his brother’s place.  This he does, but Castor will not leave his brother, and promises to return after only a day on earth. After reuniting with Telaira he attempts to return to Hades, but in the end Jupiter annuls Castor’s promise, brings Pollux back and the brothers are turned into stars, leaving Telaira alone in her grief.

The production by Barrie Kosky has some nice aspects. I liked the very realistic fight sequence when Castor was killed, and again when Pollux killed his killer. I liked the representation of Hades in mounds of earth, I liked the starlight falling on two empty pairs of shoes at the end, while Telaira is left abandoned, and I liked the huge wooden box structure in which all the action takes place. However, I was sitting in the central section, and friends on the side said their view was badly obscured. This is important because the action goes right across the interior of the box, and from the sides of the auditorium you can’t see it all.

Masked chorus from Hades

Other aspects of the production seemed over the top. When the chorus appeared in long masks it reminded me of a different opera I saw in Germany recently, and indeed Barrie Kosky works in Berlin. A German production of a French opera based on themes from Greece and Rome sounds rather like the Euro, and it didn’t all make sense. It may appeal to those who relish the idea of seeing a woman pull her knickers down on stage, first one pair then another — I counted six in one case — to say nothing of full frontal nudity of men and women with long hair hanging over their faces, or indeed fingers emerging from Hades to penetrate Phoebe. If you like that sort of thing you may love it. I didn’t. And I do wish opera houses would make sure their producers understand that the production should be visible from everywhere in the auditorium. Covent Garden made the same error with a production of Tristan by a German director, and I hope this is a mistake the ENO will only make once.

Having said all this, though, I applaud a wonderful musical presentation of what is probably Rameau’s operatic masterpiece.

Running time is two and three-quarter hours, and performances continue until December 1 — for details click here.

One Response to “Castor and Pollux, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2011”

  1. Imogen Dent says:

    You say “And I do wish opera houses would make sure their producers understand that the production should be visible from everywhere in the auditorium. Covent Garden made the same error with a production of Tristan by a German director, and I hope this is a mistake the ENO will only make once.”

    I’m afraid this is a mistake that both houses make regularly, at least for those who cannot afford the better seats. I am not talking about a seat that is sold as “restricted view”, but, for example, the middle of row D in the Amphitheatre. I have lost count of the number of times I have discovered after the event that I had missed some vital piece of action happening at the very back of an enclosed set, completely out of my sight, or realised that some bizarre piece of activity would have looked quite different – and theatrically convincing – from the stalls and the dress circle. On a salary of £17,000 I simply can’t afford to pay for those seats for which directors bother to check the sightlines…

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