Castor et Pollux: Brotherly love

Christophe Rousset and Mariame Clément’s Castor et Pollux is a breath of fresh air in the Theater an der Wien. After a string of disappointing shows, here’s one that fulfills the theater’s mission: a modern, polished production of an unusual work with a fabulous orchestra and chorus. The singing is uneven and it might be a little more gloomy than grand, but it all works together.

Rameau, Castor et Pollux (1754 version). Theater an der Wien, 1/20/2011. New production premiere by Mariame Clément, sets and costumes by Julia Hansen, lights by Bernd Purkrabek, projections by fettfilm. Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset with Maxim Miranov (Castor), Dietrich Henschel (Pollux), Christiane Karg (Télaïre), Anne Sofie von Otter (Phébée), Nicholas Testé (Jupiter), Arnold Schoenberg Chor, directed by Erwin Ortner.

Clément and Rousset have chosen Rameau’s second, 1754 version of the opera, which is more dramatically focused and austere than the 1737 version. I came that evening familiar only with 1737 (as heard on William Christie’s recording). This was a problem; they are very different. There are fewer ballets, the action is tidied up and considerably changed, and the allegorical prologue is cut. The music slips between aria and récit in a way more reminiscent of much earlier Cavalli than most French music, and shows Rameau’s harmonic crunchiness at many points. The orchestra is large and colorfully deployed. It’s not a style you hear every day, but it’s not a difficult one to adjust to, the action moves along quickly enough, and it’s beautiful stuff.

Clément’s production takes place on a unit set dominated by a large, maroon-carpeted staircase. While the staircase is surrounded by a positively farcical number of doors, the production is nothing if not serious. Between the carpet, army of servants, and 1940’s clothes, I wondered if designer Julia Hansen was working with sloppy seconds from Robert Carsen’s Semele.

Despite the specific 1940’s setting, Clément’s production is relatively abstract, with no reference to the world outside that of the characters. The theme is brotherly love, and the happenings domestic. The ballet interludes show episodes from the characters’ earlier days (using child actors), Castor and Pollux playing and always showing affection for each other, their budding rivalry for Télaïre, and the interfering, slightly older Phébée. They’re charmingly staged and dramatically helpful, clearing up and deepening the relationships, but it’s a shame they have so little to do with the music. And that there is no actual dance.

Magic and myth are minimized. There are a few coy references to Pollux’s immortality, but they are minimal. Jupiter is a stern father with an imposing office at the top of the staircase, and he cares only for Pollux. There are no spectacular Baroque settings or transformations. Castor’s underworld is the only major set change, a white box hanging from above, in which we see his visions of life in the household projected on the walls. Pollux’s departure from his immortal life, surrounded by the chorus dressed in costumes of various time periods, is nicely done. The ending is slightly confusing (if you don’t know the piece well), and suggests that Castor’s resurrection may have been only a dream.

It does a good job telling the story, with strong blocking (mostly naturalistic, sometimes stylized in the choruses) and good variety. My only complaint, other than missing dance, is that it is somewhat too somber, too muted. It’s very tasteful and skillful, but a little more boldness or invention could have made things more exciting. However, this is a somber opera, so it fits.

On the technical side, Bernd Perkrabek’s lighting contains some awkwardly timed and bumpy transitions (more a problem of execution than design). The evening also got off to a difficult start when the surtitles machine remained blank, though it was fixed around 10 minutes into the show (after audible panic in the space behind the third ring).

The most exciting things of the evening were the playing of Christoph Rousset’s orchestra, Les Talens Lyriques, and the singing of the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus. Rousset conducted at a slightly cooler temperature than some of the peppier HIP types, but the orchestra still has tremendous rhythmic definition, agility, and virtuosity. And the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, a reliable highlight of everything they appear in, sang again with impeccable homogeneity and detail.

The soloists were somewhat variable. Up-and-coming soprano Christiane Karg was the brightest spot as Telaïre, singing with honesty, spontaneity, and beautifully clear, bright tone (including a gorgeous piano). Sometimes a stronger low register would have helped, though. Anne Sofie von Otter made a formidable figure of Phébée and sang with passion and conviction, but the role seemed to demand more emphatic recitative and less lyricism than would be ideal for the current state of her voice.

From the men, cute tenor Maxim Miranov handled the murderous haute-contre tessiatura of Castor with aplomb and bright and pleasant sound, though his fluttery vibrato may not be to all tastes. Dietrich Henschel seemed miscast as Pollux (he replaced Luca Pisaroni a little while back for reasons I don’t know), his woolly baritone lacking the flexibility and clarity required for this style. Basses Nicholas Testé as Jupiter and Pavel Kudinov as the Grand Prêtre were both excellent.

It’s a lot more of a piece than what you usually get from the Staatsoper, and to hear such an usual score makes this worth a trip in itself.

Further performances are on 22, 24, 26, 28, and 30 January, more information here.

Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus/Theater an der Wien

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  1. Judging by the missing surtitles at the begining of the show, i'd assume yiu 've seen the show last night,as did I. Generally fully agree with your review. Only thing i would add, that eventhough i've neve seen this opera before, I've found the end not to be so confusing.

    Loved the staging and chorus, but was not taken by the music. Rameu's Les Indes Galantes was my first enconter with barock opera and it won me immediatelly over, but this one just didn't work for me.

    The only thing I cannot agree with you is about the "stiring of disappointing shows" at an der Wien. Personally i found both Semele and Ariadne to be much more satisfying than Castor et Pullox. Il Postino was worth to listen to at least because of amazing Domingo.

    Btw. During the pre show lecture for the subscribers, we found out that Pisaroni has cancelled on relatively short notice as he wanted to prepare for Figaro at Staatsoper. Judging by the way it was presented to us, they were not quite happy with it at an der Wien.

    One ore thng we found out – they are planning Platee with William Christie and Robert Carsten for 2014.

  2. I was there on Thursday night. They had further surtitles problems last night? Oh dear. They're usually good at that stuff at the TadW.

    Les Indes Galantes is an opéra-ballet while Castor is a tragédie en musique, a very different genre. This repertoire isn't performed very often so I think people often don't realize how diverse it is. The Neue Merker review that was comparing Castor to Handel cracked me up, that would be like describing Parsifal by saying, "it's from the 19th century, but it doesn't sound like La Traviata!"

    The ending threw me a bit, but I figured it out. That probably also had to do with me knowing the 1737 version of the score, whose finale is very different.

    The string of disappointments is probably more my taste than a consensus opinion. I liked Semele a lot but found Ariadne musically iffy and scenically not quite to my taste. And I really disliked the Postino score and have had more than my share of Domingo recently so just hearing him wasn't that much of a novelty.

    Too bad about Pisaroni! Interesting to know, though, thanks.

  3. Hm…Pisaroni is a very good Figaro, but Pollux could have been a great opportunity for him to venture out of his comfort zone and expand his small repertoire.

  4. Pisaroni is great on that Ercole amante DVD. Not that that's quite the same style as this, but he's done Baroque before. He also would have been a more probable twin with Mironov than Henschel. It doesn't really matter, but if there's going to be a big age difference Pollux should be the younger-looking one…