Monday, 21 November 2011

Castor and Pollux at ENO

Photo © Alastair Muir

I caught up with ENO’s new staging of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux on Saturday night, and should admit to being pleasantly surprised. The show hadn’t elicited much enthusiasm from the critical fraternity; or, rather, the opera itself and Barrie Kosky’s staging hadn’t. And the latter, in particular, was very concept-heavy without really succeeding in communicating what the concept might have been.

I’d had a chuckle at Boulezian’s description of the parts of the show ‘resembl[ing] a class for mature potty training’, but had forgotten that the production had also come with a warning of scenes of a sexual nature. There was the genital groping of Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé at the end of the first half, then, followed by full-frontal nudity in the second half, which arrived to predictably flaccid, yawn-inducing effect. (It was good to see those exposing themselves getting their own curtain call, though.  It reminded me of the naked extra in Romeo Castellucci’s La Monnaie Parsifal earlier in the year, who, having laid back, legs-akimbo, for a quarter of an hour in Act 2 exposing her vulva to the audience (and to a poor  Hartmut Haenchen trying to keep a firm hand on Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel), was granted her own sheepishly-taken curtain call.)

This nudity seemed to fit in, I suppose, with production’s obsession with the portrayal of regressive behaviour – into the animalistic and infantile. But it all got a bit wearing, and, as many others have pointed out, rarely did much to clarify the opera’s rather perfunctory action. Nor was it ever clear what Kosky was hoping to demonstrate by all the running about he forces his cast to do, apart from the minor engineering triumph involved in keeping certain parts of one leading lady’s anatomy within her skimpy dress.

Photo © Alastair Muir
I did rather like the imagery of Castor lying on a mound of soil after his death, though, which allowed for some movingly earthy mourning from Sophie Bevan’s Télaïre. (Most of the business with the soil in the second half, however, was rather far to the left of the stage and can’t have been visible to a big chunk of the audience; I couldn’t see it from my seat just left to the stalls’ left-hand aisle). 

There was a touch of magic in the star dust used to show Castor and Pollux once they’d been turned into their constellations. There must be a proper word for this process, à la apotheosis, but a quick Google has proved fruitless; it’s one bursting with opportunities for lavish directorial sleight of hand, though, that few seem willing to explore. (David Alden’s Royal Opera La Calisto chickened out a bit, too, if I remember rightly).  

As a show, it all skipped by enjoyably, not least due to the endlessly fluid and elegant musical direction from Christian Curnyn. Granted, the score doesn’t necessarily hang together much from number to number, but it has an airy grace all its own. There was some outstanding singing, too, particularly from Allan Clayton in the stratospheric tessitura of Castor’s writing.

Most of the negative comments to be found in the reviews were well-founded and reasonable, but I was very pleased to enjoy the show more than perhaps I’d expected. And it was good to see that ENO had managed to get so many bums on seats, even if the ticket collection queue was so long as to delay the start. All in all, this Castor struck me as a most worthwhile addition to what’s been a great ENO season so far; and it certainly awakened a desire to see more Rameau on the British stage. I won’t hold my breath, though. 


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