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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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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