fri 21/06/2024

Rameau's Castor et Pollux, Theater an der Wien | reviews, news & interviews

Rameau's Castor et Pollux, Theater an der Wien

Rameau's Castor et Pollux, Theater an der Wien

Leggy recitative guides us to heaven and hell in a compelling family drama

Right to left: Dietrich Henschel's Pollux, Christiane Karg's Télaïre, Sophie Marilley's Cléone and Maxim Mironov's Castor on the floorMonika Ritterhaus

For us Ramistes the brilliance came as no surprise. But did the genius come across to the uninitiated? This new production of Castor et Pollux, one of Rameau's finest tragédie en musique, was the Baroque composer's Austrian stage premiere.

Would the Theater an der Wien's audience look past the oddities and archaisms and unfamiliarities of Rameau's 300-year-old musical and dramatic language and embrace the radical nature of his leggy recitatives and proto-Romantic ebb and flow? No question. This was the theatre that embraced the premieres of Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies as well as Fidelio. These Viennese know good music when they hear it.

They had help. Following on from their superbly perky adaptation of Rameau's opéra comique Platée at the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg last year, conductor Christophe Rousset and director Mariame Clément have teamed up again to great effect. Plumping for the later, more dramatic 1756 version of the work - that nonetheless sees the removal of the spectacular prologue and several dances - Rousset and Clément haul proceedings into the 1930s and the grand stairwell of a bourgeois mansion. They scrub it of its static Classical gravity and reveal a fragile, cracked surface full of the emotional toing and froing of a modern family saga.

From the beginning, we see a sober, clear directorial purpose. Clément's aim seems modest but wise: to invest the Enlightenment conundrum at its centre (which are stronger: the affairs of the loins or bonds of brotherly love?) with as much psychological realism as the story can take. Everything is focused on summoning up a plausible, kinetic, modern drama as Pollux and Castor's ill-fated love of Télaïre sends them spinning into the gardens of heaven and the confines of hell. Even the ballets, divested of dance, are requisitioned for the effort, and offer a back story that lead us through the brothers' childhood at the feet of Jupiter and Leda. We aren't far from Bergman's Fanny och Alexander with its weddings and funerals and pregnant unease.

Sometimes Clément squeezes the myth too hard for psychological ends. The high jinks and spectacle that was crucial to distinguishing the tragédie en musique from its non-musical cousin was a little conspicuous by its absence. I thirsted at times for some dance. I thirsted at times for some flights of fancy such as we were treated to in Emanuel Schikaneder's theatre itself, whose small boxes, each flanked by golden diving Atlantes, magnify the occupants like something from Alice's Wonderland. But drama was to be had. There were several impressive funerary tableaux, reminiscent of the paintings of Poussin and David (see picture above), which punctuated the evening memorably.

And the music gained from a tight approach. Rameau is, like Wagner, an ocean-going composer. Vast distances are covered. Extraordinary adventures are faced. Great moral tests are overcome. In Castor et Pollux, for example, Pollux must fetch Castor from hell. These heroic travails are always sweaty musical journeys, built around uniquely leggy recitatives that sail long and lonely distances, rising and breaking, batting back reflections and oily darknesses, like the shattered surface of the sea. None of the intensity of the musical language - its subtlety and contradictions, the way major keys usher in tragedy and minor keys herald sweetness and succour - is wasted by Clément. There was some fine direction of Dietrich Henschel's tested Pollux, Christiane Karg's long-suffering Télaïre and Anne Sofie von Otter's tragic Phébé.

The roughness of the ride is as much down to Rousset and his Les Talens Lyrique as Clément. Rousset had a confident edge to his speeds and propulsion. Charm, elegance and equilibrium - which for some would feature more prominently - are eviscerated in these choppy waters. The second act in which we mourn the death of Castor was utterly compelling. Drums and low-lying instruments were given free rein to let rip. Throughout, the bounty of Rameau's orchestration was made the most of.

Rameau reveals himself to be one of the most extraordinary composers of the 18th century. Well overdue a staging or three in Britain

Von Otter was most compelling and impressive as Phébé, especially in the way she tackled the feast of French ornaments. Christiane Karg (Télaïre) had a voice that was quite delightful in all directions and emotions but rarely achieved a convincing French Baroque style. A sound of elegance and dramatic force was Dietrich Henschel's contribution as Pollux. Maxim Mironov's Castor is a tender haute-contre that would have been a perfect foil to Henschel's Pollux if he wasn't so often sharp. Nicolas Testé's Jupiter was resplendently rich and authoritative. Sophie Marilley sang several smaller plot-filling characters sensitively. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor's contribution, though powerful, revealed how tricky it is to navigate Rameau's ornaments cleanly.

One can't get away from the archaisms of Rameau's operas, especially the stasis in psychological development that was in keeping with the conventions of the day. Operas aren't left on the shelf for 300 years for no reason. But what this production proves is that, with an intelligent director and committed conductor, they can be overcome. And when it is overcome, Rameau reveals himself to be one of the most extraordinary composers of the 18th century. Well overdue a staging or three in Britain, I'd say.

Listen to Agnès Mellon sing the famed air "Tristes apprêts" from Act II of Castor et Pollux
The heroic travails are built around uniquely leggy recitatives that sail long and lonely distances, rising and breaking like the shattered surface of the sea

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Sorry, but this was not Rameau's Austrian premiere. The Landestheater in Linz did a production of Platée that was favorably reviewed. It wasn't baroque instruments, but they did have a guest HIP conductor. There's more to Austria than Vienna...

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