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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.