Rousset, Christophe


Castor et PolluxJean-Philippe Rameau - Castor et Pollux

De Nederlandse Opera, 2008 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens, Judith van Wanroij, Finnur Bjarnason, Henk Neven, Nicholas Testé | Opus Arte

The production notes in the DVD of Castor et Pollux note that Jean-Philippe Rameau quickly came to be regarded as the successor to Lully after his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was performed in Paris, and his importance is certainly evident in his third opera Castor et Pollux, (first performed in 1737 but revised in 1754, the latter version used for this recording). The story of love triumphing over death through a trip into Hades to rescue a deceased loved-one is certainly of common mythological origin going back to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is regarded as the first opera, so it’s no surprise that Handel’s Admeto and Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice and Alceste also come to mind when watching Castor et Pollux, but the similarities and the influence that Rameau would have on his successors is evident just as much in the musical treatment and arrangements.

Rameau’s following of the mythology is relatively straightforward in terms of plotting, the subject efficiently laid out in the opening two acts, but the conflicting sentiments of four different figures, some mortal and others immortal, make the opera rather more complicated, and it’s in the expression of these through the music and the singing that the brilliance of Rameau’s tragédie lyrique is evident. Pollux the immortal son of Jupiter marries Télaïra, but becoming aware that she is in love with his twin moral brother Castor and he is in love with her, he gives up his wife and unites her with Castor, rather than hurt them both and see his brother go off into exile. This would be all noble and fine but for Télaïra’s sister Phébé, who is in love with Castor herself, but doesn’t have her feelings reciprocated. She arranges for Télaïra to be kidnapped by Lincée, but it is Castor who is killed in the battle that ensues. As Phébé has the ability to open up the gates of Hades, Pollux agrees to go look for his brother, knowing that he will have to take his place there so that Castor can live again, the two of them taking their place as immortals as stars in the constellation of Gemini.

Performed here at De Nederlandse Opera with the same production team behind the spectacular Drottningholm version of Rameau’s Zoroastre, stage director Pierre Audi and Christophe Rousset, the musical director of Les Talens Lyriques, create another remarkable spectacle out of all the elements – singing, music, dance, stage, lighting, costumes – that combine to make Rameau’s operas so invigorating. There’s a magnificent sound mix (in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1) that captures the astounding performance of Les Talens Lyriques, played on period instruments, with clarity and perfect tone, creating a wonderful fullness of sound, particularly when the off-stage chorus is employed (in a manner that brings to mind Mozart’s Requiem particularly during the funeral of Castor). The Baroque and Rameau specialist singers such as Anna Maria Panzarella, Véronique Gens and Nicholas Testé are accompanied also by fine singing from Judith van Wanroij (as Cléone), Henk Neven (as Pollux) and Finnur Bjarnason (as Castor).

The staging and lighting are just as important, making use of an almost bare stage, with minimal backdrops of crossbeams, columns and geometric objects that nonetheless create a perfect impression of mythological antiquity, the costumes, colours and lighting emphasising the passions and emotional language of the characters that is expressed with such drama and depth in the musical arrangements and the singing. Anna Maria Panzarella in particular gives one of her finest Rameau performances here, giving a wonderful rendition of Act 2’s “Tristes apprêts” lament for Castor. The dancing is well employed, not as a divertissement as it is often used in Baroque opera, but to add another level to the unspoken sentiments of the characters and in how they relate to one another. On every level, this is an outstanding production of one of the finest Baroque operas.

It’s released on DVD only by Opus Arte, which is a pity as this would look stunning on High Definition media. It still looks and sounds excellent on the 2-DVD set. Extras consist of a booklet that covers the history of the opera and the production, but there is no synopsis given. The story is covered to some extent on the 16 minute Making of on the disc, through interviews with Pierre Audi, the production team, the cast and the dancers. The rehearsals give some idea of the amount of effort that went into making this an amazing spectacle.

ZoroastreJean-Philippe Rameau - Zoroastre

Drottningholm Slottsteater Sweden, 2006 | Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Anders J. Dahlin, Sine Bundgaad, Anna Maria Panzarella | Opus Arte

First performed in 1749, the reason this wonderful piece of French Baroque opera from Jean-Philippe Rameau, court composer to Louis XV and contemporary of Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, stands up so well today is undoubtedly down to the timeless nature of its subject matter. Rather than being based on Greek gods and legends, Zoroastre rather is set in the fictional land of Bactria and its subject, dealing with the timeless struggle between forces of good and evil, a battle between darkness and light on a vast epic scale, could even lend itself to a science-fiction fantasy interpretation.

Here, Abramane takes advantage of the unexpected death of the King of Bactria to attempt to seize power through an alliance with the Princess Érinice, usurping it from the rightful heir, Amélite, and exiling her lover Zoroastre, who has already spurned the attentions of Érinice. Zoroastre however is inducted into a higher state of awareness by a guru, Oromasès, and returns to Bactria to save Amélite. An epic power struggle develops then between the forces of goodness and love on one side and evil and hatred on the other. It’s a familiar struggle, with Masonic references, that just as easily be connected to The Magic Flute (Zoroastre = Sarastro), as it could be a premonition of the French Revolution (or if you fancy a Eurotrash interpretation, even the Batman mythos and Dracula stories fit the model surprisingly closely).

This production however is utterly faithful to its period setting and presented with magnificent attention to the smallest detail. Performed in an 18th century theatre in Drottningholm in Sweden, with its highly effective original pulley-operated stage scenery, the production is beautifully costumed, impressively staged and immaculately lit, filmed exceptionally well, with unusual close-ups and angles that draw you in (although the semi-obscured shaky overhead shot is over-used and really offers nothing).

The same enthusiasm can be shown towards the performance. Although the plot can be a little obscure and there are indeed some long opera seria arias that can occasionally be testing - without the excess of any da capo singing it has to be said - there is nonetheless a surprising amount of engaging dramatic action and interaction that keeps it well-grounded, as well as some unusual dance moves that add well to the emotional expression. The orgy of bloodlust in the Black Mass sequence that takes up the whole of Act 4 is one of the most dramatically staged scenes you’ll see in any production, darker and more menacing than Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell.

Most effective in this respect is Rameau’s music itself, which has pounding baroque rhythms several hundred years before Michael Nyman appropriated them, but is also dynamic and lyrical, innovatively introducing clarinets into the orchestra ensemble. Les Talens Lyriques ensemble’s playing of this revived piece is exemplary, and the singing flawless, although particular mention should be made of Anna Maria Panzarella’s Érinice for her powerful singing, as well as the sheer emotional force contained within it and her intense performance.

On the technical side, the all-region Blu-ray is also pretty much flawless. 16:9 widescreen, the superbly lit production shows tremendous detail in its 1080i encode. My amplifier identified the audio tracks as full bit-rate PCM, in stereo and in 5.1, though it’s listed as Dolby True HD on the case, but uncompressed the surround track in particular gives wonderful tone and body to the period instrumentation, and offers a full dynamic range to the singing. In an hour-long documentary, the production team offer their thoughts on the opera and its staging. A visual synopsis and cast list is also provided, along with a booklet that puts the opera into context. A fascination production of a little-known baroque opera, this is a strong package all-around, one that certainly merits a couple of viewings.