Rameau Castor et Pollux
This production of Rameau’s second great tragédie lyrique has come swiftly to DVD, having been recorded at Netherlands Opera in January 2008. Unfussy yet handsomely done, it sits well with the leanly focused nature of the work (it is set in Sparta, after all), finding space for spectacle and dance without forgetting its essential task of telling the story of the twins whose fraternal love excepts no level of self-sacrifice. Patrick Kinmonth’s spare but luminous sets and costumes (which seem to mix the Hellenic with a hint of Star Trek: The Next Generation) are much to the point, and Pierre Audi’s direction tempers a rather impersonal formality with just enough human sensitivity to keep things interesting. The choreography by Amir Hosseinpour, which seeks to double up the the emotions of the singers, seems fidgetingly out of kilter with the mood of the music on occasion but has moments of inspiration and beauty, above all in the underworld scenes. The filming is quietly perceptive, the sound full and clear.
Castor et Pollux was not a huge success at its first run in 1737, and is given here in the 1754 revision that kick-started a long run of belated popularity for the piece. Fortunately, it still includes the superb mourning scene for the slain Castor in Act 2, with the heart-rending elegy of his lover Télaïre (“Tristes apprêts”), declared by Debussy to be “the sweetest, most touching lament that ever sprang from a loving heart”. Its performance here by Anna Maria Panzarella is moving indeed. Later highlights include a typically demonic underworld episode and a beautifully evoked scene in the Elysian Fields, where Pollux, having already given up Télaïre to his brother, offers to take his place in the realm of the dead. It goes without saying that Rameau’s brilliantly composed airs, expressive recitatives, infectious dances and sturdy choruses are of untouchable high quality.
The good-looking cast includes two French singers: Véronique Gens, haughty and magnificent as the tormented Phébé who plots jealously against Télaïre; and Nicolas Testé, a vigorous and sonorous Jupiter. As Castor, Finnur Bjarnason struggles in Act 1 to find the agility to sing jubilantly of love but later on holds the stage convincingly in his underworld lament “Séjour de l’eternelle paix”. Henk Neven is a sensitive and noble Pollux, and there is attractive singing from Judith van Wanroij as Phébé’s confidant Cléone. The chorus, though banished to the pit, are lusty and very up-to-the-mark, and Christophe Rousset conducts all to perfection.