Left – Jeffrey Thompson and Celeste Lazarenko
Since its inception in 2002, Pinchgut's audience has made the annual trip to Angel Place expecting, and finding, a marriage of scholarly understanding of early opera with the highest standards of musical performance. The production of Rameau's Castor and Pollux marks a new phase in Pinchgut's development, acknowledging that staging and spectacle are also an important part of opera of any age. Kate Gaul, who has succeeded Mark Gaal as the director of Pinchgut, has conjured from the chorus (the ever-reliable Cantillation) balletic stage movements with which we might reasonably have supposed them to be at the least unfamiliar. In this, it may be that she followed the recent Opera Australia collaborations with the choreographer Graham Murphy which have been so successful in Turandot and Aida.
The opera was given complete, in a new edition by Erin Helyard, who of course also holds the instrumental ensemble together with his continuo playing. It's hard to overstate the importance of Helyard's editorial work - suffice it to say that this beautiful score has been rarely performed only, in my view, because existing editions are so user-unfriendly or just plain bad. French opera always incorporates ballet, and performing the opera in full demands that the ballets be addressed. Kate Gaul's solution was simple but brilliant. Instead of clichés such as choruses of soldiers, peasants, etc, she had two male dancers, clearly reflections of Castor and Pollux's twin-brotherly love.
The curtain opens (or it would if Angel Place had one) on half of a geodesic dome, a reference to the growth of astronomy in the Baroque period, relevant because, although this is only mentioned elliptically at the very end of the opera, Castor and Pollux become stars. Its presence, it seemed to me enhanced the acoustic of the venue perceptibly, helping to integrate the sound-worlds of stage and orchestra better than usual.
The opera is about Enlightenment values of forbearance and generosity. Both twins are in love with the same woman (Télaïre), but she loves only one of them. Pollux, the king, and the son of Jupiter (these twins have two different fathers - work that out...) gives Télaïre to Castor, whom she loves. The dramatic energy of the plot comes from a jealous woman, but, very unusually in opera of any time, the love between the protagonists is overshadowed by the love between the twins.
The singers who sang these roles were stars in a more terrestrial sense. Although at A=392, the pitch of the performance, the haut-contre role of Castor is not quite so haut, Jeffrey Thompson's impressively supple voice negotiated its still very demanding acrobatics with admirable control (a round of applause for the string and wind players, playing almost a tone below normal concert pitch!). Hadleigh Adams in the baritone role of Castor, was utterly convincing, and the warmth of his voice sat perfectly with his character as the generous, loving brother. Both these singers, and even more the meltingly beautiful Celeste Lazarenko ("she would be voluptuous if human-kind had not lost its innocence" declares Pollux) in the role of Télaïre, sang in the way we have always been told but hardly ever hear - using vibrato as an ornament. The widening of the expressive palette this gives to singers was a delight to hear. Lazarenko's big aria "Tristes apprêts" was consequently a rare combination of expressivity and purity of voice.
The chorus, as usual in Pinchgut's productions, was clear and transparent, if not always completely at home with Kate Gaul's balletic gestures. I would single out as a moment of particular beauty the exquisite passage for the women of the chorus when they are addressing Pollux in, I think, Act III. Among the minor characters Anna Fraser was always engaging in her versatile account of three separate roles.
You might easily miss it, but the program quietly mentions that this is conductor Antony Walker's 100th opera production. This is an astonishing statistic in a career of only 20 years. Entirely at ease with the relationship of stage to orchestra, reflecting in part his great abilities as a singer, Antony led both of them through Rameau's unfamiliar and subtle score with a mixture of Gallic charm and Australian confidence. I have never heard such short, soft mute e's from a chorus singing in French. Every suspension in the score - and Rameau was a great harmonist, equalled in his time only by Bach - was milked for maximum sensuous pleasure (the libretto keeps talking about the possibility of pleasure without guilt). He knew when to let the drums lead the orchestra in the remarkably vivid battle scenes. And he addressed the details of the scoring, especially the combination of the two flutes with the violins - together, antiphonally, in octaves of unison - with impeccable finesse.
Altogether another triumph. Go to see it if you haven't already.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Castor and Pollux
by Jean-Phillipe Rameau
Venue: Angel Place | 2 Angel Place Sydney
Dates: 6 – 10 December 2012
Tickets: $125 – $80