Germany Rameau: Castor et Pollux, Orchestra of Komische Oper Berlin, Chorus of Komische Oper Berlin, Christian Curnyn (conductor), Komische Oper Berlin, 11.5.2014 (SH)
Télaïre: Nicole Chevalier
Phébé: Annelie Sophie Müller
Castor: Allan Clayton
Pollux: Günter Papandell
Jupiter: Alexey Antonov
High priest of Jupiter / Mercury: Bernhard Hansky
Director: Barrie Kosky
Musical direction: Christian Curnyn
Sets and costumes: Katrin Lea Tag
Costumes: Christine Birkle
Lighting: Franck Evin
Jean-Philippe Rameau was something of a musical revolutionary in 17th century France. His “outrageous” tonality and unusually full orchestration caused something of a scandal among opera critics who had become accustomed to the straightforward tonalities of his predecessor, Jean-Baptise Lully. I’d like to think the radical composer would have approved of this provocative and intelligent production of his opera Castor et Pollux by Barrie Kosky. A co-production with the English National Opera London, it had its premiere there in 2011 and subsequently won Britain’s prestigious Laurence Olivier award for theater. While the opera isn’t exactly a repertory standard, Kosky’s production makes a strong case for why it should be.
The director chose Rameau’s reworked 1756 version of the opera which features a plot that differs from the original, allowing for greater character complexity. The story revolves around the theme of brotherly love and perhaps equally, sisterly rivalry. Two twins, Castor, a mortal and Pollux, a god, are in love with the same woman, Télaïre. Her jealous sister, Phébé is shunned by both. Télaïre and Castor are betrothed (after the former has ditched Phébé) and all is well until he dies in battle. Missing his brother and showing self-sacrificial love for Télaïre, Pollux offers to fetch Castor from the underworld, taking his place. Eventually both brothers are allowed to live in heaven, and Télaïre is left alone in the mortal realm, her sister dead.
One of the most touching scenes of was the tender meeting of the brothers in Hades. The voices of British tenor Allan Clayton as Castor and German baritone Günter Papendell as Pollux mingled sweetly. Both young singers took on Kosky’s staging challenges with great gusto—running, digging in dirt piles, slamming into walls—and while Clayton’s forceful singing was occasionally more reminiscent of Bel Canto than Baroque, he also had moments of tender vocal emotiveness. Both female singers were well cast. Mezzo Annelie Sophie Müller had a sumptuous tone and acted believable the unfortunate Phébé, while soprano Nicole Chevalier was an admirable Télaïre.
Under the leadership of early-music specialist Christian Curnyn, the orchestra of the Komische Oper was superb. This marks the first time that the string section has played with baroque bows, yet one would hardly have noticed. The music in Rameau’s opera is lush and unlike Handel’s operas, places bassoons and flutes at the center of the orchestra, on par with the violins. The orchestra rose to all challenges, filling the small theater with thrilling swells and demanding attention, particularly in the many dances.
All action took place within a framed rectangular box made of bleached wood, which immediately set clear boundaries— confinement was a reoccurring theme in the production. The use of contour and color made for many visually pleasing moments. The opera opens with the sisters in vibrant emerald green and fascia dresses– the only splashes of color in an otherwise muted and stark black and white palette. The back wall rose periodically to cut the boxed stage in thirds or quarters, creating clean horizontal lines. An angular pile of dark brown dirt became the setting of several moving images—Télaïre in her bright frock reaching out to her slain and bloodied mortal lover, his skin bathed in red.
There were, however, some distracting over-sexualized elements in the production, which had the effect of seeking shock value as opposed to adding to dramatic intent. The scene with the youthful enchantresses was a bit overdone, the Lolita element a bit too obvious, and the part in which a hand appears to please Phébé amidst a florid aria was cringe-worthy.
The production had a surreal edge, which was also quite interesting. The demons wore droopy, cartoonish masks. Jupiter, father of the twins, was played by the forebodingly tall Alexey Antonov. He wore a suit, platform shoes and a veiled top hat and was accompanied by a high priest, complete with bleached white face and long, tentacle-like fingers. The heavenly enchantments were dressed in pastel-colored baby-doll dresses like 1930’s schoolgirls; their unruly hair completely obscuring their faces as they danced seductively around Pollux before removing several pairs of underwear. The God Mercury wore a suit, yet his feet were bloody stumps and he could hardly stand. He clicked his heels in joy before falling to the ground in pain.
Thought-provoking and highly entertaining, one can see why this production had the honor of receiving Olivier’s coveted prize.