An Awesome Trek Through the Cosmos with the Pinchgut Opera’s ‘Castor et Pollux’ by Rameau
Castor et Pollux, Tragédie Mise en Musique par Jean-Philippe Rameau
libretto by Pierre-Joseph Bernard, 1754 version
City Recital Hall, 6 December 2012
continues in Sydney until Monday 10 December. Sunday’s Performance will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Sunday 16 December.
The Pinchgut Opera
The Orchestra of the Antipodes and Cantillation chorus
Antony Walker – Conductor and Music Director
Kate Gaul – Director
Andy McDonell – Set design
Jasmine Christie – Costume design
Luiz Pampolha – Lighting design
Ash Bee – Choreography
Erin Helyard – Musical preparation and harpsichord
Jeffrey Thompson – Castor
Hadleigh Adams – Pollux
Celeste Lazarenko – Téläire
Margaret Plummer – Phébé
Paul Goodwin-Groen – Jupiter
Anna Fraser – Cléone, Follower of Hébé, A Spirit Pascal
Herington – Mercure and The Athlete
Mark Donnelly – High Priest
Sean Marcs and Adam Murray – dancers
Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography. Granted these are not listened to and watched quite in the same way as classical or romantic or modern opera, but what what we label so generally as opera encompasses nearly as many terms as there were composers for the genre, in some cases more: there were Monteverdi’s favole in musica and ‘staged madrigals,’ ballets de court, the comédie-ballets of Lully and Molière, ballets-tragiques of Lully and later Rameau, tragédies en musique, Purcell’s operatic masques, the Singspiel of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert and others, and Wagner’s music-dramas, though the Paris Opéra’s requirement that all operas have ballet in them lasted through Wagner’s time, who famously added one to the beginning of Tannhäuser so it could be produced in there, though interestingly even now Tannhäuser seems to be performed with the ballet more often than without.
To a great degree these various labels and genres come from the composers’ experimentation, especially with Monteverdi, Lully, Rameau and Wagner, though Singspiel was new in Mozart’s day too, and likewise the modern creative need to play, sing, dance, see and hear these creations demands expectations from the audience as wide open as the imagination of the artists remounting them. Neither should we dismiss the ballets in these opera-ballets for they would have been very sophisticated, however young the Académie Royale de la Musique et de la Danse was in Rameau’s time. Gaetano Vestri, who was said to touch the floor only out of consideration to his fellow dancers, danced in one of the original Castor et Pollux productions and the ballerina Barbara Companini, known as “La Barbarina,” famed for her perfect entrechat-huit, danced in the original production of Rameau’s Fêtes d’Hébé.1 Lully did much to develop ballet as an art form with Louis XIV, thanks not only to his experimentation but perhaps also residual artistic attitudes from the renaissance, choreographing and dancing as well as composing the music. Rameau did much for ballet too, taking over the ballet-tragique form from Lully and making them in his own way, not without controversy from his audience. Interestingly, Rameau composed Castor and Pollux just before ballet and opera started to go their separate ways. In 1754, the same year Rameau rewrote Castor et Pollux, the very version the Pinchgut is using for this current production, he also composed Les Fêtes Chinois with the then 27 year old Jean-Georges Noverre as choreographer. In 1760 Noverre wrote his Lettres sur la danse one of the most famous theoretical treatises on ballet, 40 years after Rameau wrote his famous treatise on music and harmony. Noverre advocated for a new ballet d’action, an independent, self-explanatory, whole piece of danced theatre which returned to nature in that it told a story through dance with vivid, real characters, fusing the techniques of ballet and mime into a single expressive art form, in which arbitrary virtuosic displays would no longer be the main attraction. It is in a way the difference between rococo and classicism, but Rameau’s imagination and curiosity were big enough to create music to receive the new generation’s ideas. Noverre probably didn’t choreograph any version of Castor et Pollux, but one can hear how well the dance music is integrated in the overall plan with the sung music, and where all the music is completely integrated with the story, its characters and their words. However Noverre put his theories into practice without Rameau; he went on in the 1760’s to create Don Juan, the first true ballet d’action, with Gluck in Vienna, a completely different, classical, style of music (and also, later, Les Petits Riens with Mozart in Paris).
Rameau’s very music, its complexity and density seem to imply something great in the choreography, as great in its expression and nuance as the singing. Rameau in his Traité d’Harmonie culminates with a treatment of the fugue, that indefinable musical form-texture, the highest form of composition for many composers. While his theoretician predecessors attempted to define the fugue and write out its rules and formulae, Rameau accepted and pointed out that the fugue had no set rules or formulae, which is just what makes it the highest form of music for Purcell, Bach and Beethoven, if not to go back to Monteverdi or even the late 14th century avant-garde like Filippo da Caserta, where the voices meet in imitation, but diverge despite the repetition, becoming complex, but combining harmoniously, while paradoxically each retains their melodic freedom of expression. This idea of the marriage of the vertical and the horizontal in music, the marriage of melody and harmony clearly glowed in Rameau’s thoughts and in his music, alongside the harmonious coexistence of singing and ballet, and of the lovers and siblings in his works, even if only as an implicit ideal for his characters. The complexity of his music suits this kind of theatre and these stories and characters like a glove. Rameau’s “rules” in the end for fugues were merely to follow the text in sung music, and for pure instrumental music — presumably including the dance music —, “le bon goût ou la fantaisie,” and in fact the seamless marriage in Rameau’s imaginative instrumental overture, entr’actes and “simphonies” with the dances and the sung recitative, ariettes, arioso-like passages and arias is remarkable in itself. It owes as much to his peculiar sense of harmonic progression in a plan, a dessein as he called it, as to the very flowing action of the plot in the libretto of Castor et Pollux, and his sense of sung and danced dramatic pacing is one with all this. Rameau emphasized the importance of correct harmony in the fugue, correct to the composer’s purposes, the melodies in the voices being flexible.2 His style of melodic writing was more flexible if less lyrical than Italian composers’, but retains its own style of lyricism which derives from the French language, a sort of wandering melodic line (which Debussy mirrored), the French version of the speech-song originally advocated by the Camerata in the late 16th century and practiced more flexibly by Monteverdi (thanks to Lully’s work writing down on the staff, as Messaien would later write down bird song, the recitation at the Comédie-Française). Dancing, in so far it is listening to the music, and dancing ballet, despite its great difficulty and strict technique, in so far as it is listening to and flowing with the melodic line but also diving in and out with an ear to the harmonic turns and changes with free expression, finds very danceable music in Rameau.
The Pinchgut Opera as a young, small, quite confident company which takes their historically-informed music very seriously, hiring young artists and taking an exuberant, open, adventurous, different approach to opera, is well suited to give creative necessity to producing baroque operas anew, especially of a composer like Rameau. They are open to ideas and are most successful where these are most honestly adventurous, even experimental, in the original spirit of the music’s creation. Their set for Castor et Pollux is inventive: a half a geodesic dome arching over the stage, like a planetarium, but open at the front so we can look into it. Blue or orange transparent plastic covers some of the triangles making up the dome. This instantly acknowledges the astronomical climax of the myth while truly settingthe opera-ballet in nothing less than the Greek cosmos, and as there are no curtains in the Angel Place Recital Hall, on entering the theatre and finding your seat, you in the audience are placed in this cosmos too as you contemplate this dome which will hold Rameau’s retelling of the myth, inspiring awe before the first note. As a half-shell would, the dome naturally boosts the voices slightly, but not so much the orchestra which sits in front of the stage, outside the dome, where the front few rows of seats usually are, but the effect overall is quite natural and is mostly well controlled in design, except maybe where a singer turns their head toward the back or side of the stage and their voice remains disconcertingly up front. The costumes live up to this design: each of the women wear a nicely cut peplos with a girdle around the middle, with a slightly science-fiction glitter from the restrained, sparse sparkles in the fabric. Télaïre’s has a golden tinge, while Phœbé’s is a fiery orange, but cut more amply so as to fall in magnificent monumental folds about her. Each of the women in the chorus wears a similar but simpler peplos in a drab gunmetal gray, but whose sheen picks up the light to become a gray-lilac, for example, when in Act III the chorus becomes the celestial spirits. In Act IV they are gray as the Happy Spirits of the Elysian Fields, but they play with billowing strips of a similar fabric which span the width of the stage and float back and forth like parachutes to imply very effectively the river Lethe. Rameau’s playful element is integrated very well into the production. The men of the chorus have simpler half-painted shirts and pants. Castor and Pollux’ costumes — baggy, muddy colored gray-green sack-like pants tied haphazardly at the waist, the cuffs tucked into their jack boots with a tight fitting shirt open at the neck and chest with a silver collar-necklace, I found a bit off-putting. Jupiter when he appears, comes out on a gangway rigged high above the stage above the dome, above the surtitles even, fittingly enough, wearing a white robe with much gold bling. Down on the stage, the set is spare, with merely the base of the dome round the back and sides, with two diamond-shaped entrances and exits left open in the dome, and three or four large parallelepiped-shaped blocks painted black and cut obliquely at the ends which are moved about, combined and stacked to provide an altar, or the Spartan architecture of Act I, or with red lights from below, the volcano-like rim of the pit leading down to hell in Act III which poor Phœbé opens, or to make the frame, which with the blocks laddered on the sides and white lights from below, serves as a means to “stellifye,” as Chaucer would say, the twins. The set design, costumes, lighting, choreography, direction, and even performance practice to an extent, harmonize, most of the time, to the point that it is often hard to tell which artist is responsible for which idea.
The direction does at times clash with the music and the overall concept, for example, members of the chorus hopping up and down with their palms raised in the Act I Scene 4 celebrations as they sing sounds and looks odd. The chorus is asked to do much in this production and they rise to it impressively — in fact their singing was one of the highlights of the performance — but the direction goes too far, affecting their singing too much here and again when they must writhe around and move about too strenuously as the demons in Act III while singing their “Brisons tous nos fers….” Much more effective was the scene just up to that point, when the chorus of demons was still confined within the rim of blocks and were writhing about in place with veils over their heads giving a frightening effect which complements perfectly the music. Also Jeffrey Thompson overacted to an embarrassing degree I’ve never seen in opera and was allowed to by the director, but in such a way that he hardly interacted with the other characters. In his articulation of his phrases of music he was over emotive, his notes wedge-shaped in starting faint and growing louder, as opposed to a more bell-like note, so the stems of many of his words were lost. The music Rameau wrote for the orchestra, in the harmonies of the continuo — which was as lovely as it was unobtrusive with Erin Helyard on harpsichord and Laura Vaughn on gamba — is so expressive that a singer can and must be restrained and show their character in their voice’s natural ability to show all the qualities we associate with character and personality, one with the music, without telling the listener what to feel. An insufferable Castor might be a valid interpretation of the piece, but, though baroque art, especially late baroque and rococo music like Rameau’s, had lush ornamentation, the idea was also to use light ornaments with intricacy and contrast. With little response or interaction with his fellows on stage with this somewhat egocentric performance all the contrast with Castor was on the surface and the required conversational intertwining of the various musical parts was missing on his side, even if the relatively few ensembles were well-balanced and well-sung together, but in the end his love for Télaïre was hard to empathize with and his selfless desire to give up for Pollux his life which Pollux had just retrieved was a little unconvincing beyond the words. Much better was the still scene in the Elysian Fields in Act IV Scene 5, after the playful chorus of Happy Spirits (with the parachute cloth) was unable to cheer him, and left alone and immobile in the center of the stage, this isolation and loneliness, underscored so eloquently by the music, which Mr. Thompson expressed with more restraint, the warm tone of his tenor, which is fundamentally strong and has presence, brought across the character’s own despondency much more honestly and vividly, and the character was much more sympathetic. He seemed much more one with his character here. But following, arguing with his brother come to rescue him, he had to express his anger, “cruel!”he sings in near shouting and with agitated gestures more American in style, out of step with the music and language. Hadleigh Adams’ Pollux was a bit cocky too, they seemed maybe more like fighter pilots than ancient Spartan generals, which is an interesting modern interpretation for the Spartan twins, though nothing in the designs reinforced this, unless you count the intrusive recording engineering which put microphones on all the cast members’ cheeks — the music was NOT amplified electronically — and also microphones hanging down from the ceiling coming through the dome marred the set a little. Still, this Pollux had some piousness, more staid regality than the Castor, as it should be, he even was a touch humble at times. His bass-baritone is a bit less colorful, but has an overwhelming quality as if it emanates from the earth to encompass you with a suave, clean, smooth tone, with more than a little push to it. Pollux is the rational, stably based character who manages to juggle his kingdom, Castor and Télaïre’s happiness, Phœbé and the various gods who appear without losing his cool too much. The warmth of the music Rameau gives to Pollux shows the king’s deeper feelings which his actions imply.
Celeste Lazarenko’s colorful, earthy but shimmering soprano, with a lovely lightness to the tone, made a beautiful Télaïre, very convincing as the love interest, contrasting with Margaret Plummer’s sharper but more homogeneous voice which had more penetration and a touch of inflexibility of tone but did acknowledge Phœbé as a person who has gone off the rails rather than a simple villain, her attempt to open the gates of Hades to get Castor back seemed well-meaning in a way and her hopelessness and death poignant as things get out of hand. At least Phœbé tries to take matters into her own hands. Télaïre is a more difficult character, in a such a production as this one especially, being a much stiller character than the rest, who is softer spoken, and whom the libretto gives hardly any action of her own and is so constant in her feeling for Castor, a constancy which carries her suddenly (not too abruptly, though, with Rameau’s music, to leave the realms of good taste and human feeling) from the despair of lost happiness in having to marry the wrong man, to complete unlooked-for joy after Pollux’ sensitive disinterest in freeing her, to despair and bereavement, to slim hope in Phœbé’s plan to rescue him from Hades, and joy, then despair and then joy again in Act V as Castor returns, decides to go back for Pollux, before all is put right with the deus ex machina ending. Oddly, and unfortunately, she doesn’t sing at all through the entire third and fourth acts, from the Athlete’s song and dance through Pollux’ entering hell until Castor’s return, not even giving Pollux a send off. Despite this seeming flaw, Ms. Lazarenko fills the role with warmth and subtle expression, giving Télaïre dignity despite the victimizing circumstances and sister. Her gestures and facial expressions were natural and befit her regal demeanor. Her diction, vowels and consonants, was good and brought out the natural, free aspect of Rameau’s melodic writing. Mark Donnelly, also a member of the chorus, made a memorable and fitting High Priest, with very good, clear diction, and one of the only ones along with Ms. Lazarenko singing in something more the French style, higher up and forward in the head. Anna Fraser (also singing in the chorus) paired nicely with Ms. Plummer as Cléone, Phœbé’s moon-priestess-confident, and also singing a seductive take on the celestial spirit whom Jupiter sends down to try to dissuade Pollux of giving up his immortality for Castor. Paul Goodwin-Groen (who is also shared with the chorus) sang quite strongly from up on his platform in the rafters as Jupiter, with a tone quality which was convincing as the father of Mr. Adams’ Pollux. Maybe a bit too restrained to be chucking vocal thunderbolts, but after all Rameau’s neoclassical Jupiter is a bit more magnanimous, even christian, than the original god of myth, especially compared to the brimstone of his High Priest’s “Fuyons et Fremissons.” Also haute-contre Pascal Herington, also taking part in the chorus, brought to the production a bright, youthful, light and even kinesthetic Mercury and Athlete.
To complete this production, choreographer Ash Bee offered replacements for the lost ballets, with choreography for two male dancers, and also some movements for the chorus — there is much too much dance music for two people to cover. Academics have tried to reconstruct the ballets of the time, but we will never truly know how they actually were, how they translated the established courtly dances and contemporaneous folk dances to the stage. The graceful sort of contemporary choreography which Ash Bee has created here is thus more effective for being simple and light rather than desperately trying to fill the vacuum and falling too heavily on the music, and it blends in very well next to the singing within the scenes. Her choreography responds to the music respectfully so that, with help from the orchestra, the dramatic momentum is carried to the next sung section without faltering or abruptly changing the pace of the drama. All Rameau’s dances in Castor et Pollux have dramatic purpose, or at least fit into the scenes, responding to the singing which comes directly before and after. Generous, stretching arm movements, calisthenic-like movements in the first scenes with the Athlete and the battle, and jumps and leaps and turns compliment the lightness of the intricacies in the music without trying to interpret every note, complimenting also Adam Murray’s light-footedness and fine port-à-bras with flexible shoulders which acknowledge as much the negative space as the shape of the arms in space, and show Sean Marcs’ strongly contrasting athletic, muscular style. In a stylized original way, the choreography depicts fighting or wrestling without resorting to obvious martial arts moves, or excessive violence, which is vivid enough in the music in the war scene in Act I, with the cello bows rattling like sabers and thorny rhythms and furious violins. As some of the movements are rehashed in later scenes, they become a bit repetitive at times, and with the costumes of blue pants tied at the waist and no shirts it degenerates at times into an obvious display of flesh. But the two dancers become convincing mute foils for Castor and Pollux. The chorus’ dancing is a brave move, in Act II for example celebrating the previous acts’ victory which costs Castor’s life seems lifted from Boticelli’s Primavera, which is fine inspiration — Isadora Duncan herself took inspiration from the painting — and overall works well, seeming quite spontaneous, avoiding cliché and too much arm waving. The chorus does very well with so many demands from the creatives, and here seems even to have fun. The singing cast also is given a sequence of stylized ceremonious hand gestures to interpret the statelier dances toward the end of the piece. Somehow they work well too, indeed much better than the hopping up and down in the first Act. The chorus, as I mentioned above, was a highlight of the performance, with 18 members the Cantillation chorus has a distinctive, clear quality, a clarity of texture and color which complements Rameau’s counterpoint and the period instruments of the orchestra. A very tight, precise group with good dynamic control serving their warm expression, whether broken up — the plaisirs célestes chorus was all women — or whole, very capable in singing the delicate aspects of the music. They reached an extraordinary volume for their size, at times sounding like a chorus ten fold larger in a grander hall, perhaps due in part to the acoustics of the dome set, and while thrilling and exciting in a way, this played up the music in an unnecessary way and swamped the orchestra somewhat, losing the orchestra’s nuance in the sudden crescendo. With the A392 tuning and unequal baroque temperament, the music was permeated by a delicate sweetness of tone one rarely gets with later music but is just right for Rameau’s baroque style of neoclassicism (classical in subject matter but also the form of the entire piece seems very symmetrical, stable and satisfying). The orchestra, which shares many musicians with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, sounded very fine overall, their newly Pinchgut-commissioned French bassoons, very important in Castor et Pollux’ music and drama, sounded lovely and human and were well worth purchasing, the continuo, as I mentioned, was sweet and expressive in an unobtrusive way to the singers while carrying Rameau’s very important harmonic dessein through the plot and emotional development of the characters. Erin Helyard’s thoughtful preparation of the performance parts of the 1754 version of the music contributed much to the production’s success. Antony Walker’s conducting was energetic, but one or two of the inter-scene pauses sounded a bit awkward. At times the orchestra seemed to be striving too hard to make a large volume to the loss of some of the detail in the voices, and a slight loss of clarity here or there. One, the listener especially, has to accept, of course, that old instruments and gut strings are quieter, and take it on faith at a certain point that the music can be heard. In the center scenes of the opera, in the Elysian Fields especially and the following prélude tendre to Act V, the music naturally gets quieter and the orchestra sounded best here to my ears, carrying across Rameau’s most colorful voice, and more nuanced expressive qualities faithfully.