Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) Castor et Pollux (1754 version)
Colin Ainsworth – Castor
Florian Sempey – Pollux
Emmanuelle de Negri – Télaïre
Clémentine Margaine – Phébé
Christian Immler – Jupiter
Sabine Devieilhe – Cléone
Philippe Talbot – Athlete
Virgile Ancely – High Priest
Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphaël Pinchon
rec. live, 2014, Festival Radio France et Montpellier-Languedoc-Roussillon, Montpellier, HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902212.13 [69:19 + 70:12]
First, the good things. Raphaël Pinchon and Ensemble Pygmalion have done a fantastic job of recreating the sound-world of the French Baroque; better, in fact, than any other group since Les Arts Florissants, and even then, distinctively different from them. There is a penetrating presence to the orchestral sound that is bewitching. A lovely sense of swoop and lean places the voices completely within the comfort zone of France’s particular take on the Baroque. It's delightful. Sometimes recordings of such repertoire tend to play things pretty straight, but Pinchon nails his colours firmly to the period's stylistic mast. He achieves its standards so triumphantly that I was entirely won over. The frequent dances are a special and predictable treat, and the occasional music for, say, the battles, the thunderclaps of Jupiter or the funeral of Castor, is very atmospheric. The chorus, too, sing persuasively and with warmth, utterly convincing as soldiers, spirits or anything else in between.
I feel much more equivocal about the solo singing, however. The title characters, in particular, are problematic. Colin Ainsworth doesn't sound at all comfortable as an haute-contre. His first entry had me taken aback as alarmingly reedy, and my consistent waiting for him to settle was never fully repaid. In fact, Philippe Talbot in the cameo role of the Athlete sounds rather more comfortable with the stratospheric tessitura, and it made me wish that he had been given the part instead. Florian Sempey's bass Pollux is well contrasted with his brother's reedy heights, but he too seems frequently to struggle to pitch to the note. There is an embarrassingly missed (but very brief) low passage during the second act. He sounds impressive during his great scene with Jupiter in the third act, but altogether he didn't impress me. Again, Christian Immler’s Jupiter sounds a better bass and more convincingly Gallic, so I wouldn't have minded another role swap there.
The women, on the other hand, are a lot finer. As Télaïre, Emmanuelle de Negri manages to marry a crystalline top with plangent sensitivity. She steals the show every time she sings, and her funeral lament for Castor is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Phébé's lower register contrasts her well and gives her a more dramatic, slightly histrionic air that Clémentine Margaine brings to life most convincingly.
The opera itself is a lot of fun, with some very beautiful moments. Pinchon has recorded the 1754 version, which is more adventurously scored and features several edits (including an entirely new first act) that Rameau enacted as a result of requests made by the Académie Royal de Musique during the famous Querelle des Bouffons. This, therefore, finds the elderly composer on the peak of his form, and Harmonia Mundi’s typically excellent booklet notes contain a scholarly essay which will tell you more, together with full texts and translations.
So while the male voices remain problematic, there is much more here to enjoy than to irritate, and it’s definitely worth a listen. Harmonia Mundi’s attractive clam-shell presentation helps to persuade.