We went to see the ENO’s new production of Castor and Pollux the weekend before last, and I’ve been trying to work out what to say about it since. It comes to something when the production is so avant-garde that the full frontal nudity is the bit that you can safely mention to your grandmother.
Rameau was an eighteenth century French composer who took the myth of Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Leda (and thus brothers of Helen, her who started the Trojan War, although she doesn’t get a look-in here), and wrote an opera about it. The ‘canonical’ version is that Castor was the mortal son of Leda’s husband, king Tyndareus of Sparta, while Pollux was the immortal son of Zeus, king of the gods, who had something of a soft spot for Leda, visiting her in the shape of a swan. When Castor died, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his immortality with his brother; the result varies, but either the two brothers take it in turns to be in the underworld and be on Olympus, or Zeus takes pity on them and turns them into stars, as happens in this opera (the posh word for which, incidentally, is catasterism). Wikipedia has a nice summary of the plot, which Rameau tweaks into a love story: Télaïre is betrothed to Pollux whilst really being in love with Castor, her sister Phébé also loves Castor, and Pollux nobly sacrifices first his intended bride then his life for his brother.
Rather like with Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean, we’re looking at another incidence of reception at two removes here; not only does this opera play with Rameau’s own reception of the Castor and Pollux myth, but it is also the ENO’s interpretation of Rameau’s reception, creating a further layer of conceptual complexity to the whole game. And, I should add, it really is a further layer of complexity, because the ENO have decided not to go for staging the piece in the style of Rameau’s time. This is, shall we say, a bit of a stylistic problem, because about 50% of the opera, if not more, is devoted to ballet music. The current production (according to the program) keeps about 70% of the ballet music in – which, as G remarked, you have to do if you want to have a second half. Rameau’s period was very keen on having a good proportion of singing to ballet, and his score shows how he was working to give the punters what they wanted. There’s a wonderfully unsubtle bit when Zeus tells Pollux, who has come to ask for Castor to be restored to earth, that he must see the pleasures of Olympus before he chooses to give them up, and discover with what delights the gods disport themselves during their days in the heavens – clearly operatic code for ‘bring on the dancing girls’. Particularly when the aria which is supposed to cover this bit includes the line “our king is only happy when he’s making love”. (This may or may not be a reference to Louis XV – another way in which Rameau may be making the myth relevant to his context.)
I should begin by saying that whatever problems I have with the production, the music was excellent. The orchestra was crisp and on point, and the singers were amazing – not least because of the things they were being required to do whilst dealing with some very challenging passages. Allan Clayton, singing Castor, gets my award for ‘highest level of technical achievement’ for not only hitting high tenor range notes clearly and with great focus, but for doing so whilst lying down with Sophie Bevan (Télaïre) sitting on his chest. Musically, I couldn’ t have asked for anything more.
The problem is that while the ENO producers are quite right to keep the ballet music in, because it’s brilliant, they have to think of something for the people on stage to do during it. And this is where it gets a bit rough, I’m afraid, because they’ve also decided to go for a very pared down set, modern dress, and generally a sense of trying to get into the spirit of the music; the program uses words like “visceral”, “extraordinary emotional journey” and “emotional drama”. When the ENO’s website warns you that “this production contains scenes of an adult nature”, they’re not joking. I think the most painfully explicit moment was when the witch figure, Phébé, tries to conjure Castor out of hell whilst being fondled by a disembodied hand emerging from a huge mound of earth. It was… well, rather embarrassing really. Trying very hard to be all trendy and edgy and provocative, but just not quite getting there or communicating the point it was trying to communicate. Now, I’m all for edgy and conceptual stagings (Parsifal at this year’s Bayreuth festival springs inexorably to mind), but for them to work, they have to be clear about what they’re trying to do. The problem with this production is that it wasn’t clear at all what the point was, beyond getting the audience to go ‘gosh, there’s a lot of sex involved in this, isn’t there?’
Mind you, this may in fact be the point, at least sort of. The story of Castor and Pollux is all about brotherly love; the ancient world viewed it as being the great symbol of fraternal devotion. This ideal brotherly relationship, of living one life shared between two people, even inspired the Roman emperor Tiberius to dedicate a temple to Castor and Pollus in A.D. 6, as a memorial to his own brother Drusus. They’re good to think with in terms of what it is to be brotherly, and how those loyalties play out. In Rameau’s play, it’s quite clear that the fraternal bond conquers all; the chief romantic lead, Télaïre, remains on-stage alone at the end of the opera, after her sister Phébé has run into hell and Zeus has taken the twins to the stars, and is left to sing a song about the whole thing – but she’s left on her own. Although romantic interest powers the play (Télaïre is originally engaged to Pollux, who hands her over to Castor because she is actually in love with him; Phébé longs for Castor and accidentally causes his death through an attempt to get Télaïre kidnapped so he’ll not be able to marry her; Pollux is at least partially motivated by his own love for Télaïre in getting Castor back from the underworld for her), ultimately when given the choice of remaining on earth or ascending to the stars with his brother, Castor chooses the stars. The fraternal bond wins out – the distraction of sexual love fails. One suspects that the ENO’s production attempts to put the temptation of sexual love front and center on the stage to emphasise its ultimate failure to undermine the brothers’ devotion to each other. Sadly, I suspect that if I’ve had to spend this long thinking about the production to work out that’s what it was trying to do, it probably could have done it better.
I should also make a point about gender here, which is based on Rameau’s libretto, which is how badly sisters do out of this whole affair. Télaïre and Phébé are, as I mentioned, sisters, but there’s no sisterly affection on display; the opera begins with Phébé having a terrific aria about how fed up she is that Castor has abandoned her and hoping that Pollux won’t give Télaïre up to him. The romantic rivalry which the production foregrounds through erotic content seems to be gender-driven, in that while the women fight, the men nobly sacrifice (although in Télaïre’s defence, I don’t think it’s actually made explicit that she knows Phébé is in love with Castor). Sororial devotion doesn’t stand a chance against the pulls of love. The two women ultimately stand divided throughout the opera, foregrounding the strength of the bond between the brothers, which forms the core of the ancient myth, Rameau’s interpretation of it and the ENO’s staging.