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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Castor et Pollux (tragédie lyrique) (1737, revised 1754)
Télaïre: Anna Maria Panzarella (soprano)
Phébé: Véronique Gens (soprano)
Castor: Finnur Bjarnson (tenor)
Pollux: Henk Neven (bass-baritone)
Cléone/Une suivante d’Hébé/Une ombre heureuse: Judith van Wanroij (soprano)
Jupiter: Nicolas Testé (baritone)
Le Grand-Prêtre/Une autre voix: Thomas Oliemans (baritone)
Un Spartiate/Un athlète/Mercure/Une voix: Anders J. Dahlin (tenor)
Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera
Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
Stage Director: Pierre Audi
rec. live, het Musiektheater, Amsterdam, 21, 25 January 2008. Stereo/5.1 Surround DTS. Picture format 16:9. All formats/all regions.
includes documentary: To serve this big spectacle…., illustrated synopsis and cast gallery.
Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish and Dutch.
OPUS ARTE OA0999D [2 DVDs: 155:00] 


Experience Classicsonline

With a fine set of Castor et Pollux already available on CD - Les Arts Florissants/William Christie, Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1435.37, extracts at bargain price on HMA195 1501 - and a less expensive Naxos version which earned Jonathan Woolf’s warm recommendation (8.660118/9 – see review and Robert Hugill’s almost equally enthusiastic review) do we need a version on DVD? Emphatically yes, since spectacle is half the story in Lully and Rameau and there is spectacle a-plenty here – for a sample, play the movie clip on the Opus Arte website. You’ll find, too, that these new DVDs cost less than the Christie CD set.

The 1737 original was considerably reshaped for the 1754 revision employed here: Rousset points out that the revision is more compact and the decision to use it was almost certainly the right one, though Christie prefers the original. Though based on mythology – surprisingly, not Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as I fondly thought – Rameau’s librettist made considerable changes to the plot which, in any case, exists in various classical versions, so that the illustrated synopsis is very useful; it should be played first. In this version, not only does Pollux offer to lay down his immortality for his brother’s sake, Télaïre also renounces her love for Castor so that Phébé may restore him. 

The original version began with a Prologue depicting the funeral of Castor; this was omitted in the revision, along with the references to events of 1736/7, no longer of topical interest. This production, however, neatly provides a kind of replacement Prologue – soon after the overture is under way, we are shown thumbnails of the principal performers, though not told who is which; then the curtain rises to a mime of the betrothal of Pollux and Télaïre, obviating the shots up the orchestral players’ noses which too often feature during operatic overtures. 

Above all, the music comes from Rameau at the height of his very considerable powers; how the Lullistes of the 1750s could decry such music – or, indeed, how anyone could love Rameau and hate Lully – is beyond comprehension. The work’s failure in 1737 is as inexplicable as its popularity after 1754 is fully deserved. 

The lively account of the overture sets the tone for the whole performance – though the orchestra plays in obscutiry from the pit, the sound is clear and well focused. At 4:48, on paper Christophe Rousset’s tempo is a little statelier than Kevin Mallon’s on Naxos, but in practice he sounds sprightly enough and his tempi thereafter are generally a shade faster than Mallon’s. 

All the principals – indeed, all the singers, including the choir – are very good. Even Phébé’s maid Cléone (Judith van Wanrij) sings very well. Véronique Gens not only sings extremely well but convinces us of the torment in Phébé’s soul; if I prefer her for this reason to Anna Maria Panzarella as Télaïre, the preference is marginal – both are splendid and there is just enough difference in vocal timbre between them. 

Finnur Bjarnson as Castor is more lyrical than Henk Neven as Pollux, who compensates by sounding more authoritative, a distinction appropriate not only to their voices, tenor and bass-baritone respectively, but also to their roles in the opera. Again, both sing extremely well, after a very slightly hesitant start from Bjarnson. The singing of both seems to develop in stature as their characters develop. Nicolas Testé’s Jupiter is splendidly godlike in manner and voice and Anders Dahlin is excellent in the four small roles which he sings. Though only two of the cast are Francophones, the diction of all is excellent. 

The recording is excellent throughout, with just the right balance between voices and orchestra. Even as television sound it’s more than acceptable; played through an audio system, it’s even better. The picture quality is also excellent – played with hdmi upscaling, who needs blu-ray? 

Patrick Kinmouth’s set is plain with a stylised representation of the constellation Castor and Pollux in one form or another throughout. It’s particularly effective at such moments as the end of Act 2, when the central section opens to admit Castor on his passage to Hades. The plainness is combined with a 21st-century high-tech look, ‘modernised but not updated’ as the producer, Pierre Audi, puts it. He’s probably as tired of puns on his name as I am of sharing the name of the most famous of the Beach Boys, but the motto of his automotive namesake seems especially apt: Vorsprung durch Technik. In the absence of bottomless funds to reproduce the lavish original sets and costumes, I prefer such a stylishly minimalist approach, as on the Christie version of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (Virgin DVD 4906129). 

The costumes are timeless: the main characters and the dancers are in shades of red, violet and purple. Like the production overall they combine the stylised and stylish with modernity. The same is true of Amir Hosseinpour’s choreography: I wasn’t wholly convinced by the modern expressive style of dancing – quite unlike anything that the original audience would have seen – but, like the production overall, none of it jarred as much as many recent updatings of opera, and it’s all very well done. I found the dancing of the Airs pour les athlètes at the end of Act 2 and the scenes in Hades – shades of the Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice – more effective than the menuets and gavottes at the close of Act 1. 

The English subtitles are good, but occasionally the modern idiom jarred – “This spirit was not out for tears; it was out for blood” is hardly felicitous. I’m still waiting for someone to invent the technology to have the original text and translation on-screen together. 

The booklet is lavishly illustrated and more informative than such DVD booklets usually are. There’s no libretto, of course, or even a printed synopsis, but the latter is very effectively provided visually and aurally on the first DVD. Though the recording has appeared in comparatively short order, there is no sign of its having been rushed in any way.

Brian Wilson

see also Review by William Kreindler



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