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.