Music Review: Castor and Pollux, English National Opera

A rare and welcome French baroque production by an English opera company.

These days we're quite happy manhandling Purcell, Handel, even Vivaldi operas, comfortable with the odd musical corner of these increasingly familiar works getting scuffed in semi-professional productions, happy even to see them undergo the neon paint-job of avant garde directors. But there's something about French baroque that sets it apart. There's a sheen, an otherness to the works of Lully, Rameau and Charpentier that still says "handle with care". The result? This repertoire has been almost entirely neglected by English opera companies.

So when English National Opera announced that they were staging Rameau's Castor and Pollux, and not only would it be sung in translation but directed by Australia's conceptual bad-boy Barrie Kosky, there were mutterings. Directorially as it turns out these were justified; you don't hire Kosky because you're looking for powdered wigs and pomp, and he obliges here with quite the most anti-beautiful production it would be possible to conceive.

Staged with brutalist simplicity in what could be a cross-section of an IKEA bookcase, a series of sliding wooden panels the sole architectural feature, Kosky strips Rameau's tale of men and gods, or earth and the underworld, of its journey. Here hell is not so much other people as ourselves, as the increasingly abstract, self-reflexive visions of our two heroes make clear.

Debasing the chivalric currency of this myth of brotherly devotion, Kosky reimagines other-worldly temptation as a striptease by a pair of pigtailed schoolgirls, gives us a Mercury whose wings have failed him, who hobbles on bloody and bandaged feet to deliver his message.

As a reading of this slightly awkward legend, where romance plays an uneasy supporting role to fraternal love, it's rather effective. Driven by forces they cannot reason or understand, our quartet of central characters hurl themselves at walls, flinging themselves about in a useless attempt to escape this bleak box of their own consciousness with its veiled demons and doppelgangers.

It is a staging however that wants to shock. Perhaps if it didn't so desperately crave the cringe, the gasp of affirmation from the audience, it might have flowed rather better dramatically. Kosky is both a brave and a clever director, but neither quality is best served by his glib, unsexy and at times rather tedious attitude to nudity and sex.

One of the most inspired innovations of the production takes place offstage. The orchestra pit is raised up to expose the musicians and reflect the intimate, dialogic relationship between singers and players in Rameau's through-composed drama. Baroque flutes husk and coo among the contemporary instruments of English National Opera's orchestra, ornamenting the musical lines with the delicate detailing Kosky scrubs from his drama.

Period specialist Christian Curnyn is all poise and composure, extracting a nicely mannered account from his instrumentalists, but one wonders if he and Kosky ever sat down and really talked. While both Curnyn's slightly consumptive delicacy and Kosky's brutality are valid, together they seem at odds; one invites the audience to rest easy on a brocade chaise-longue, the other pulls it suddenly out from under them.

With the exception of a slightly bedraggled chorus, vocally this is an exceptional production. As immortal Pollux and mortal brother Castor we have Roderick Williams and Allan Clayton - a pairing as dramatically effective as it is musically. Williams' interiority finds an emotional truth among Kosky's wilder extravagances, while Clayton - always strong - surprised with his exquisite, virtuosic power in this high-lying role. Sharing the tenor laurels was Ed Lyon's Mercury, all fioritura fireworks and courage.

Sophie Bevan, rapidly becoming one of ENO's star attractions, delivered a fairly faultless performance as Télaïre, but on opening night it was the pure vocal intensity and psychological interest of Laura Tatulescu's sinning and sinned-against Phébé that wrung the heart.

Love or hate this production - and there will be vocal advocates on each side - what Kosky and ENO have done here is both necessary and long overdue. They've opened up the cabinet of French baroque porcelain and if not quite taken a baseball bat to it, certainly played a little rough. Now that we've got over being quite so precious, quite so fearful of this repertoire, perhaps we can get back to the business of giving these glorious works the attention they deserve.

 

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution