On October 24 the English Opera Company at the Coliseum ventured for the first time into the world of French baroque opera with a run of Rameau's 'tragédie lyrique en musique' – the performance under review was on November 11.
Rameau was born in 1683 and was thus a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti; his career was unusual in that for the first half-century of it he composed harpsichord music but was also known throughout Europe as a theorist; but then until he died in 1784 he composed operas, a couple of dozen. Castor and Pollux are brothers, the first a mortal, the other a god and this is a story of sacrifices entailing death, a visit to the underworld, two loved ones and desolation for the woman that love the brothers. At the time of the premiere in Paris in 1737 works like this included dancing; this aspect of the work is included in the music but although the chorus move around there is no actual ballet.
Vocally and musically this performance is outstanding with three magnificent singers, Castor – tenor Allan Clayton, Pollux the god, Roderick Williams, baritone, and Télaire who loves Castor but is betrothed to Pollux – the soprano Sophie Beavan. All three sing and act marvellously and their performance includes vigorous action, fighting and running round the stage, also covering themselves with earth to symbolize visiting the underworld.
The set is like a wooden box, seemingly plywood, with extra partition walls that reveal and conceal.
The music is full of boundless vitality, ingenuity, enchanting orchestration, quirky to a degree, ingenious, passionate and unpredictable; Rameau is part of the line of French eccentrics such as Berlioz, Roussel and Satie. Christopher Curmyn deserves the highest praise for his direction and command of the orchestra which copes with the elaborate decorations in the music. The band, by the way, is raised from the pit so that it is visible – and more audible than usual.
The production is by Barrie Kosky, an Australian who now lives in Berlin and is about to direct that capital's Comische Opera (co-producer of this opera). My colleague in The Spectator advised his readers to shut its eyes to this show, only listen. But I found that the drama is well projected despite all the running about and several scenes that merit an X certificate. Kosky seems to have a thing about underwear: how many pairs of panties did Télaire peel off? We wondered if the production had moved to Knickeragua, were the cast going to sing pubic airs? And did the chorus receive a bonus for revealing its all?
However, nobody seemed to object aloud and the audience seemed delighted with Rameau's endless stream of melody, expressed in marvellous vocal and orchestral sounds.