A fine bromance

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That’s the sound of someone running directly into a wall in Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of Castor et Pollux. It seems to be their response to any kind of frustration, tragedy, or annoyance. Frustrated in love? Thunk! Brother dead? Thwack! Phébé thought of going to Hades first? Thump!

This is a very serious production, and as usual the KOB ensemble runs into those walls with impressive conviction. But after a while the effect begins to wear off.

Rameau, Castor et Pollux (1754 version). Komische Oper Berlin, 7/3/2016. Production by Barrie Kosky (revival), sets and costumes by Katrin Lea Tag, dramaturgy by Ulrich Lenz, lights by Franck Evin. Conducted by Christopher Moulds with Nicole Chevalier (Télaïre), Gäelle Arquez (Phébé), Henk Neven (Pollux), Allan Clayton (Castor), Alexey Antonov (Jupter), Aco Aleksander Biscevic (Mercury)

I’ve given the Met a lot of grief for mostly performing operas by a small group of composers that were written from around 1780 to 1920. Many other opera houses are a lot better about diverse programming, but sometimes you realize that this is easier said than done.

I don’t like framing something like Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (here in its later, 1754 version) as an “addition” to a canon, because that implies that it is marginal compared to, say, Donizetti. But, practically speaking, singers and orchestral musicians are trained to perform a limited number of styles and French baroque isn’t terribly high on many conservatories’ lists. Rameau and other Baroque opera (except for Handel) is often relegated to specialists like Les Arts Florissants. When you’re an ensemble house like the Komische Oper, which primarily casts from a group of company singers on full-season contracts, you might have problems. Also, you are again dealing with a French text in a company that has only just begun singing in French at all.

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That’s a long way of saying that this Castor et Pollux was stylistically not quite there. The orchestra used period bows, I read, though I honestly couldn’t hear many signs of this. The string sound was rather mushy and scrambled, and both orchestra and chorus failed to bring transparency and direction to the contrapuntal writing. The singers varied in their stylistic fluency, from the solid Nicole Chevalier (Télaïre) (who is also a champion runner into walls) to the stiff and rhythmically disjointed Henk Neven (Pollux). Allan Clayton’s forceful tenor brought energy and momentum to Castor, but he struggled with some of the coloratura.

The unit set is a light wooden rectangle set into the larger proscenium, with two garage-door like wooden curtains upstage (not right to call them iron curtains, though that’s sort of what they are) allowing the chorus to enter and exit quickly. Some of Franck Evin’s lighting looks almost unfinished, though since that blue line (above) and unfiltered-looking special are in the production photos I assume it’s intentional. The Personenregie is the best thing about the production, and the acting is strong and detailed. Kosky effectively sustains an intensely dramatic atmosphere, with a lot of violent hand-to-hand fight choreography. Both women give intense performances. Gäelle Arquez as Phébé is striking onstage and her grainy soprano is intense, but lacking in some refinement. Chevalier’s Télaïre is much more varied in voice and she uses her even, silvery lyric soprano with considerable flexibility. Acting-wise, her performance was carefully paced, starting as the sane one at the beginning but building to an effectively despairing ending.

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But I had a hard time figuring out what Kosky was getting at in a larger sense. Everyone is in business clothes. It starts off as pure minimalism but the enigmatic images start to pile up after Castor’s death, along with a giant pile of dirt. Mercury is a vaguely Kosky-looking bespectacled angel in a suit with a hat and slowly flapping little wings; Jupiter is a very tall man wearing a mask. It’s visually striking, but also confusingly antic (particularly Mercury) and things become more and more strange: Pollux is harassed by two seductive nymphs who are the creepy versions of Phébé and Télaïre (they’re the same singers) and drop many pairs of panties. More  along these lines follows as a hand reaches out of the hill to grope Phébé.

It’s effectively done but I found it strangely unsettled where I think it was supposed to be unsettling. For me it was chaos without culmination and I was struck with a continued feeling of not getting it; it just seems to be a lot of things that don’t quite fit together. The chorus spends a fair amount of time milling and dancing around awkwardly, for example, and that’s the other thing about this style: there is a lot of dance music. The only other production of this opera I’ve seen was at the Theater an der Wien, in a very good staging directed by Mariame Clément. Clément used these dance interludes to fill in the plot’s backstory, showing the characters as teenagers. It was elegant and effective. Kosky doesn’t seem to have any particular plan for the dance music, and while the interludes of milling around give the production a dignified pace they also make the narrative slack.

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The ending, however, is very good: even as Castor and Pollux are elevated to the heavens, illustrated by onstage fountains of glitter, Télaïre is left alone. And Kosky leaves us with her, alone as Phébé had been at the ending of the opera. Somehow in these stories it seems like it’s the women who always lose, and I appreciated that this was, for once, brought into the foreground.

Bonus: Stefan Herheim sighting in the audience.

Photos copyright Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de


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  1. In this performance of Castor only Nicole Chevalier was a member of the ensemble of Komische Oper! The other three were guests.
    The production itself was brought from London about two seasons ago, where it was awarded the Olivier for best opera production of the year. So this really is not typical fare at the Komische but something rather special. I’ve seen it many times and was moved to tears again last Sunday.

  2. I actually did realize this about the cast and really should have pointed it out. I think with style here the orchestra and chorus were as much if not more of a concern.

    And this production definitely has a vibe! It didn’t work for me, though. I agree that this wasn’t typical KOB–I’ve never seen something so minimalist there before.

    1. Minimalistic style is not uncommon at the Komische! Iphigenie, Soldaten, Moses, were some of the best stagins in recent times.

      1. I guess “recent” is my problem–I spent a fair amount of time at the KOB around 2008-2012 and don’t associate the place with minimalism much at all (the most minimalist things I saw were the Neuenfels Traviata and the old Konwitschny Don Giovanni). But I’ve barely been back until now and times change.

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