De Nederlandse Opera, 2008
Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens, Judith van Wanroij, Finnur Bjarnason, Henk Neven, Nicholas Testé
The production notes in the DVD of Castor et Pollux note that Jean-Philippe Rameau quickly came to be regarded as the successor to Lully after his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in Paris, and his importance is certainly evident in his third opera Castor et Pollux, (first performed in 1737 but revised in 1754, the latter version used for this recording). The story of love triumphing over death through a trip into Hades to rescue a deceased loved-one is certainly of common mythological origin going back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is regarded as the first opera, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s Admeto and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste also come to mind when watching Castor et Pollux, but the similarities and the influence that Rameau would have on his successors is evident just as much in the musical treatment and arrangements.
Rameau’s following of the mythology is relatively straightforward in terms of plotting, the subject efficiently laid out in the opening two acts, but the conflicting sentiments of four different figures, some mortal and others immortal, make the opera rather more complicated, and it’s in the expression of these through the music and the singing that the brilliance of Rameau’s tragédie lyrique is evident. Pollux the immortal son of Jupiter marries Télaïra, but becoming aware that she is in love with his twin moral brother Castor and he is in love with her, he gives up his wife and unites her with Castor, rather than hurt them both and see his brother go off into exile. This would be all noble and fine but for Télaïra’s sister Phébé, who is in love with Castor herself, but doesn’t have her feelings reciprocated. She arranges for Télaïra to be kidnapped by Lincée, but it is Castor who is killed in the battle that ensues. As Phébé has the ability to open up the gates of Hades, Pollux agrees to go look for his brother, knowing that he will have to take his place there so that Castor can live again, the two of them taking their place as immortals as stars in the constellation of Gemini.
Performed here at De Nederlandse Opera with the same production team behind the spectacular Drottningholm version of Rameau’s Zoroastre, stage director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset, the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, create another remarkable spectacle out of all the elements – singing, music, dance, stage, lighting, costumes – that combine to make Rameau’s operas so invigorating. There’s a magnificent sound mix (in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1) that captures the astounding performance of Les Talens Lyriques, played on period instruments, with clarity and perfect tone, creating a wonderful fullness of sound, particularly when the off-stage chorus is employed (in a manner that brings to mind Mozart’s Requiem particularly during the funeral of Castor). The Baroque and Rameau specialist singers such as Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens and Nicholas Testé are accompanied also by fine singing from Judith van Wanroij (as Cléone), Henk Neven (as Pollux) and Finnur Bjarnason (as Castor).
The staging and lighting are just as important, making use of an almost bare stage, with minimal backdrops of crossbeams, columns and geometric objects that nonetheless create a perfect impression of mythological antiquity, the costumes, colours and lighting emphasising the passions and emotional language of the characters that is expressed with such drama and depth in the musical arrangements and the singing. Anna Maria Panzarella in particular gives one of her finest Rameau performances here, giving a wonderful rendition of Act 2’s “Tristes apprêts” lament for Castor. The dancing is well employed, not as a divertissement as it is often used in Baroque opera, but to add another level to the unspoken sentiments of the characters and in how they relate to one another. On every level, this is an outstanding production of one of the finest Baroque operas.
It’s released on DVD only by Opus Arte, which is a pity as this would look stunning on High Definition media. It still looks and sounds excellent on the 2-DVD set. Extras consist of a booklet that covers the history of the opera and the production, but there is no synopsis given. The story is covered to some extent on the 16 minute Making of on the disc, through interviews with Pierre Audi, the production team, the cast and the dancers. The rehearsals give some idea of the amount of effort that went into making this an amazing spectacle.