RAMEAU Castor & Pollux
Castor et Pollux, Rameau’s third opera, was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1737. Preceded by an old-fashioned Prologue for gods and goddesses, the action began with the Spartans mourning the death of Castor. Pollux descends to Hades to get his half-brother back; at the end, Jupiter elevates both to the Heavens. The opera racked up 21 performances but it was less well received than Hippolyte et Aricie and Les Indes galantes. Rameau returned to it after an unusually long gap: the revised version, recorded here, was staged in 1754. Out went the Prologue, and the living Castor appeared in a new first act, to the great advantage of the drama.Telaira is due to marry Pollux but loves Castor. Pollux nobly resigns his claim, to the fury of Phoebe, who is herself in love with Castor. Phoebe arranges for Telaira to be abducted; this fails but Castor is killed. Jupiter permits Pollux to rescue Castor from Hades, provided he takes his brother’s place. Castor agrees to the exchange but only so that he can bid farewell to Telaira, after which he will return to the Underworld. Not surprisingly, Telaira gives him a hard time over this, but Jupiter descends and everyone is happy – except for Phoebe, who kills herself.
The revision was a great success. There are Italian elements in the score – da capo arias, roulades on key words – but essentially this is a superb example of a French tragédie en musique. What it lacks is a powerful exit for the unhappy Phoebe; her ‘Castor revoit le jour’ doesn’t quite cut it, though admittedly it’s rather under-characterised by Clémentine Margaine (it’s omitted on Kevin Mallon’s Naxos recording). As usual with Rameau, the dance music is a delight, and it’s beautifully played. Another pleasure is the high-quality casting of Philippe Talbot and Sabine Devieilhe in minor roles. As on the Naxos recording, Castor is sung by Colin Ainsworth. Eleven years on, his voice is still in excellent shape, the top notes light and unforced, while his declaiming of the text sounds free and natural. It is a surprise, and a pity, that he is deprived of ‘Tendre amour’ at the end. He and Florian Sempey, a vigorous Pollux, are movingly tender when they meet in Hades. Emmanuelle de Negri is wonderfully intense in ‘Tristes apprêts’, the opera’s most famous number. It sounds as though two or more bassoons are playing: on the Mallon recording it’s a solo player, who is even more touching. The chorus and orchestra under Raphaël Pichon are first-rate; the harpsichord continuo is hard to make out. All in all this is a splendid achievement, but I wouldn’t wish to be without the Naxos.