Congratulations to English National Opera for finally bringing Rameaus masterpiece to the stage. While the company has done much to establish Handel in the modern repertoire, it has hitherto neglected the stage works of his great French contemporary. Mores the pity, then, that this production fails to impress.
Presenting Castor and Pollux in English is something of a risk. As with the operas of his predecessor Lully, Rameaus tragdie lyrique is sculpted around the French language. Word sounds and intonation are supported by and reflected in the delicate scoring. Although ENO has successfully anglicised French operas before (notably Pellas and Mlisande by Debussy, a great fan of Rameau), Amanda Holdens translation is clunky and awkward in parts.
The awkwardness of the libretto and a lack of experience in this repertoire may explain the variable singing. None of the main singers seem at ease with the subtleties of Rameaus vocal lines. Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams give serviceable accounts of their roles as the twins Castor and Pollux, with Clayton having the edge over his sibling. Sophie Bevans Tlare the object of both brothers affections sounds and looks too immature to convince, while Laura Tatulescu as her jealous sister Phb should be a whole lot nastier. The normally top notch ENO chorus never quite get to grips with their music either.
If the singing does not live up to the challenges of French Baroque, then neither does the staging. Australian director Barrie Kosky (recently appointed to Berlins Komische Oper, with whom this is a co-production) deliberately eschews the formalities and conventions of ancient regime theatre. Fair enough. But in its place he fills the stage with empty or self-consciously provocative gesturing against a background of dull, simplistic scenery. The set is an IKEA-inspired box, with a steep mudslide that serves as a burial ground and the entrance to the underworld.
In attempting to undermine the aesthetics of French Baroque theatre, Kosky resorts to gimmicks or vacuous emptiness. Some of his staging is funny for example, when baby doll-like Hebe and Pleasure beguile Pollux with the pleasures of immortality by repetitively stripping off layers of knickers while he gazes up at them from below. At other times it is just plain silly: the shadows of the underworld stripping off; Tlare running around the stage and bashing against the walls; actors standing stock still during orchestral interludes that were originally intended for balletic or scenic entertainment.
All of this is underpinned by good but not outstanding musical direction by Christian Curnyn. The presence of both period and modern instruments makes for an uneasy mix, and the players are barely able to catch up with the rapid runs in some passages. But the percussion elements are well judged, and the woodwind playing is excellent. Overall, though, ENO seems to have missed the point of this affecting portrayal of fraternal love and self-sacrifice.