English National Opera are to be commended – very warmly indeed – for taking the London opera scene into the territory of the French baroque. New works are important, but it seems there is a wealth of uncharted territory just waiting for our two big London companies to explore.
It is disappointing, therefore, that they chose to introduce us to Castor et Pollux in the Barry Kosky production, joint with the Komische Oper. I can scarcely imagine a production of it, by turns more dreary and irritating.
The whole thing took place in a chunky beech-effect (as B&Q would style it) box. There was a heap of mud – large for the first half, smaller for the second half – which functioned as the interface between this world and the underworld, and through which there were some clever comings and goings, combined with much irritating writhing and chucking of mud. Characters were dressed in the style, seemingly de rigeur for this sort of endeavour, of business suites and smart skirts or shift dresses. The lighting remained resolutely bright and unshaded. There was drag, there were sinister sexual effects, such as a hand emerging from the mud to provide Phébé with clitoral stimulation. And there was nudity. I’ve never seen penises deployed on stage – or, indeed, anywhere – to such minimal impact. Maybe I’m getting old before my time, but I can’t ever recall seeing a penis before and thinking ‘what’s it for?’
Time and again, people ran noisily around the set and banged off walls, they collapsed, they got up, they ran, they collapsed again. The chorus, complete with its nudes, milled about with funny face masks on, or they did those sorts of comic semi-dances that Regietheater specialists so enjoy. All for nothing, and certainly for nothing connected to the music; in fact the noise frequently disrupted enjoyment of the orchestra’s contribution. And, by the end, it was dull, dull, dull.
The shame of this is that the music was very good indeed. The ENO orchestra were spritely and graceful to a wonderful extent. It was an enchanting sound world of woodwind and brass sonorities, intertwining over the varying rhythms that Rameau spins out. From the elegant dances to the growls and shudders of Jupiter’s thunder in the last act, it was an orchestral score crowded with incident. The two male protagonists – Allan Clayton as Castor and Roderick Williams as Pollux – were in thrillingly forthright voice, rich and heroic. Clayton produced some truly ravishing singing in parts. Sophie Bevan’s Telaïre displayed a secure and fulsome soprano, tied to boundless energy for the production’s nonsense. If the Jupiter of Henry Waddington failed quite to reach the heights of godly majesty, then having to sing in a top hat complete with face veil may have contributed. Ed Lyon’s Mercury brought some character and energy to his role, which involved a lot of falling down.
Laura Tatulescu, as the wrong-doer Phébé, coped well with the worst excesses of the translation: at times she had to cram in so many syllables to the lines that they seemed to flash past in chunks, like commuters crammed uncomfortably into a passing train. In fact, the translation was a consistent problem: it robbed the piece of the poetry inherent in the sounds of the French language, and substituted nothing approaching an English equivalent poetry. It sounded horribly, clumsily, clunkily, prosaically literal. It added to a feeling of a rambling lack of direction in the drama, which I don’t think is inherent in the structure of the piece which is, by Baroque standards, relatively tight and straightforward. Maybe if the dances had been allowed to be dances, rather than an excuse for clever-clever ‘business’ then the piece may have retained its structure.
I wish I could have enjoyed the music more, but the visuals kept getting in the way. Although everything was perfectly audible and none of the sound was recessed as can sometimes be a problem at the Coliseum (which is probably because of the infernal wood-veneer box), nonetheless I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a sound-world and dramatic construction tailored to a more intimate room of several hundred, rather than one approaching 2,500. I would very much like to encounter Castor and Pollux or, better still, Castor et Pollux again. This time, I’d like a decent production or, perhaps, better yet: a semi-staged concert, and in a venue such as Kings Place or the Purcell Room. More Rameau, please, ENO; less Kosky while you’re about it.