United Kingdom Rameau, Castor et Pollux (1737 version): Soloists, Rameau Project Choir & Orchestra / Jonathan Williams (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 15.5.2022. (CR)
Director – Guido Martin-Brandis
Castor – Rory Carver
Pollux – Jack Lawrence-Jones
Télaïre – Hilary Cronin
Phébé – Galina Averina
Minerve – Emily Gray
Amour / Le Grand Prêtre – Harry Grigg
Mars, Jupiter – Peter Harvey
Vénus / Une Suivante d’Hébé / Une Ombre – Jenni Harper
First, to clear up some misapprehensions about what this performance of Rameau’s third completed opera, Castor et Pollux, may or may not have been. It was claimed to be the UK premiere of Rameau’s original version of 1737. The reality is less exciting since, as the programme note states, the opera had been put on by the Oxford University Opera Club (in English) in 1934. As that was an amateur performance – as also a still earlier production at Glasgow in 1929 – this presentation (sung in the original French) was really the professional premiere of this version. Its score will, in general, already be well enough known to several generations of listeners, as it was the version recorded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and William Christie. But the additional draw of this live performance was that it used a new edition by Jonathan Williams, which fills in some of the inner parts of the orchestration and choruses missing from the surviving sources; and it incorporates an aria for Vénus, ‘C’est assez regner par les armes’, as well as a different version of the concluding Chaconne (which actually omits the resounding final chorus ‘Que le ciel, que la terre et l’onde brillent’) both previously unknown. It seemed a pity then that, given the laudable efforts taken in mounting this all-too rare a chance to hear a Rameau opera in this country, it was given in abridged form. The programme did not elaborate, but in view of the coherent nature of the sung dialogue, it seemed to be mainly the ballet movements which were cut (though some were retained) and some recitative.
The 1737 version of this ‘tragédie en musique’ begins with an allegorical Prologue, in which Minerve and Amour (i.e. Cupid) encourage Vénus to use her charms and incite Mars to cease his bellicose activities and surrender to the joys of peace. Such occasional prefaces were common in operas of the Baroque, to eulogise the power and virtue of a particular aristocratic patron or to mark a specific political event – in this case the end of the War of the Polish Succession. The Prologue was cut in the 1754 version as no longer strictly relevant, and the taste for them had largely passed by then. Critical opinion has tended to continue to regard them as an artificial, non-essential part of the drama they precede; and given that the compressed five acts of the 1754 version of the opera (which eliminated the Prologue) is a more succinct work than its original, it is understandable that this revision has generally been preferred – as, for example, with English National Opera’s production in 2012. With the war in Ukraine, however, the 1737 Prologue here naturally became more potent, with its preliminary glorification of the divine principles of love and peace. Their influence is then seen, in the opera proper, to extend to the earthly realm as the immortal Pollux offers to sacrifice his life for his deceased, mortal twin, Castor, so that the latter may be reunited with his lover Télaïre, before all three are ultimately rewarded by being transformed as immortal stars.
Williams conducted a generally solid, stately account of the opera, even with somewhat fewer performers than the 50 or so Rameau may originally have been able to call upon, but the cellos and double bass provided an earthy underpinning to the specially assembled Rameau Project Orchestra. There was palpably more dramatic charge to the last three acts, a haute-contre after the interval, as though the performers had more confidently gained their stride, but appropriate ornamentation ensured that there was, as it were, a French garnish to the overall sonority. If the vowels of the choir did not remain quite open and Gallic enough as they sang, in timbre they were ideally lucid and streamlined, though bolder and more to the fore in evoking the demons of hell at the opening of Act III.
Jack Lawrence-Jones sustained a warm, eloquent account of the quite lengthy role of Pollux. His dialogue with Télaïre – indicating that he will implore Jupiter to bring Castor back to life, but also revealing that he loves her himself – was persuasive and impassioned, but without resorting to declamatory excess. Rory Carver was correspondingly lyrical and restrained as Castor, but not being as such, he was somewhat strained in the upper register, so his performance was less idiomatic.
Hilary Cronin exuded dignified control and sincere feeling as the grieving Télaïre, particularly in the opera’s most famous number, ‘Tristes apprêts’, which here received an attractively flowing interpretation like a slow dance, rather than a static lament, with the bassoon in moving dialogue with her rather than simply embellishing the underling harmonies. Galina Averina provided apt contrast as Phébé, Pollux’s jilted lover, first in exhibiting alluring charm, and then fearsome outrage as she sought to detract Pollux from his mission to Hades.
Emily Gray was a coaxing Minerve in the Prologue, but slightly weak tone from Jenni Harper as Vénus caused her to sound a touch flat. The latter’s next appearance as a Follower of Hebe was a little shrill, as though in compensation, but she was more convincingly effusive as Une Ombre (a shade) in the scene in Hades. Harry Grigg was a light voiced Amour, but more commanding in his additional role as the High Priest in Act II, whilst Peter Harvey sang tenderly but firmly as Jupiter, in addressing his son Pollux, given additional authority by projecting some of his passages from the elevated position of the Sheldonian’s lower gallery.
As a staged production of the opera, Guido Martin-Brandis’s direction was helpful insofar as the gestures of the singers were gently mannered (but not in any pejorative sense of that term) bringing characterisation and choreography that was subtle and evoked something of the authentic nature of stagecraft in Rameau’s day. But the few costumes and party shop style props were, at best, cute rather than insightful, culminating in the characters wrapping themselves in rows of LED lights, like an undergraduate fancy dress staircase party. Nevertheless this was a worthwhile undertaking from Williams’s ongoing Rameau Project, following the productions mounted in 2014 for the composer’s 250th anniversary, bringing performers together to develop their experience of this distinctive repertoire and performing style, and a welcome opportunity for audiences to witness that. The latter will surely await eagerly the realisation of further works by Rameau in the future, as there are many still almost unknown.