03 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Jean-Philippe Rameau – CASTOR ET POLLUX (J. Thompson, H. Adams, C. Lazarenko, M. Plummer, P. Goodwin-Groen; Pinchgut LIVE PG003)

Jean-Philippe Rameau - CASTOR ET POLLUX (Pinchgut LIVE PG003)

JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764): Castor et Pollux, RCT 32 (1754 version)—J. Thompson (Castor), H. Adams (Pollux), C. Lazarenko (Télaïre), M. Plummer (Phœbé), P. Goodwin-Groen (Jupiter), A. Fraser (Cléone, Follower of Hébé, Spirit), P. Herrington (Mercure, Athlete), M. Donnelly (le Grand-Prêtre); Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes; Antony Walker [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances in City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, 6 and 8 – 10 December 2012; Pinchgut LIVE PG003; 2CD, 139:20; Available from Pinchgut Opera]

As is widely known, Jean-Philippe Rameau did not unleash his genius on the operatic stage until he had achieved the age of fifty, but after the divisive success of Hippolyte et Aricie—the first of Rameau’s tragédies en musique—in 1733 the famously obstreperous composer channeled his creative energy almost exclusively into operatic projects. Four years after the inaugural production of Hippolyte et Aricie galvanized adherents to the ancien régime of Lully and followers of the avant garde of Rameau, the latter fired a missile directly into the Lullistes’ camp with Castor et Pollux. Resurrecting the spirit of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1688 tragédie biblique David et Jonathas, the subject matter of Castor et Pollux was unconventional even in the enlightened philosophical climes of 1737. Rather than concerning themselves with the Arcadian tales of thwarted love among shepherds and nymphs and allegorical romances typical of French Baroque opera, Rameau and his librettist, Pierre-Joseph Bernard, turned their attention to the fraternal affection of the mythological Dioscuri. There are concessions to tradition, of course, not least in the fact that Télaïre, the archetypal operatic heroine who is betrothed to one brother but in love with the other, is the opera’s most stimulating and sympathetic character, but the singularity of Rameau’s vision was retained and refined when Castor et Pollux was extensively revised in 1754. In the sense that it is both a masterpiece of its genre and an emotive defiance of the traditions that produced it, Castor et Pollux is an ideal project for Australia’s Pinchgut Opera. Founded almost casually over cups of coffee, Pinchgut Opera exemplifies the best of the Performing Arts by pursuing a course that is very different from those trodden by most of the world’s opera companies. Rather than wasting precious resources on apathetically-conceived and poorly-executed productions of the same standard-repertory operas being performed in theatres from Albuquerque to Zürich, Pinchgut’s artistic staff focus each season on two productions—encouragingly expanded from a single production only recently—of operas that showcase the musical talent of Australia. The prominence of Baroque scores in Pinchgut’s repertoire is more incidental than intentional: it was quickly discovered that Australia abounds with gifted interpreters of Baroque music, so why perform Verdi facelessly when ensembles of native-born artists could perform Vivaldi fascinatingly? This recording on Pinchgut Opera’s house label—produced, engineered, and mastered so skillfully that only a few moments inoffensively betray the recording’s origins in staged performances—affirms both the validity of the Company’s objectives in general and the particular suitability of Baroque repertoire for their endeavors. Performed with flawless stylistic affinity, this Castor et Pollux leaves no doubt that, at least when Pinchgut Opera is the source, opera ‘down under’ is gladdeningly at the top.

Musically and dramatically, the 1754 version of Castor et Pollux favored by Pinchgut Opera is perhaps Rameau’s single finest work for the stage and unquestionably one of the greatest operatic creations of the 18th Century. Like most French Baroque operas, Castor et Pollux offers a plethora of opportunities for an alert choral ensemble to palpably enhance the drama. Not one of these opportunities is allowed to pass unseized by the excellent singers of Cantillation. From their first appearance in Act One in the spirited ‘Chantons, chantons l’éclatante victoire’ to the beautiful ‘Qu’il est doux de porter tes chaînes’ that closes the opera, Cantillation sing with abandon, combining authentically Gallic élégance with intensity that heightens the emotional impact of the performance. Likewise, the sounds produced by the Orchestra of the Antipodes transport the action both to the antiquity conjured by the story and to 18th-Century Paris. Conducted by the Orchestra’s Music Director and Pinchgut Opera’s Co-Artistic Director Antony Walker, both the chorus and the orchestra perform responsively, not accompanying the principals but interacting with them, participating in the creation of an experience rather than merely executing notes. The harpsichord continuo is rendered with inexhaustible imagination and musicality by Pinchgut’s other Co-Artistic Director, Erin Helyard. There is nothing but unequivocal enjoyment to be had from the choral singing and orchestral playing, and Maestro Walker brings to Rameau’s score largesse and levity, building the performance around an emotional core that devastates because it also elates.

Rameau’s music startles and delights with its inventive syntheses of Italianate melodic liberality and Händelian prodigality of dramatic expression with the endemic scenic structures and dance rhythms of French Baroque opera. Were all productions of Rameau’s operas—and, indeed, of French Baroque opera in general—cast as triumphantly as Pinchgut Opera’s Castor et Pollux, these effervescent, often plaintive scores would surely assume the places in the repertories of the world’s great opera houses that they so deserve. Still, it is unlikely that any of the world’s larger opera companies would take care to cast Castor et Pollux with the sensitivity and understanding of the score’s musical demands that Pinchgut Opera’s production exhibited. Bass Paul Goodwin-Groen brings apt grandeur to his singing of Jupiter, especially in the final scene, in which his voicing of ‘Les destins sont contens, ton sort est arrêté’—Jupiter’s pronouncement of the reunion of Castor and Pollux—is the embodiment of dignity and magnanimity. Tenor Pascal Herrington is an equally vibrant, invigorating presence as both Mercure and an Athlete, whose ‘Eclatez, fieres trompettes’ is sung with genuine brilliance. In Mercure’s guiding Pollux into the Underworld, Mr. Herrington sings with heady eloquence, infusing his lines with silvery tone and duetting with Pollux with swagger. To Mark Donnelly, another talented tenor, falls the duty of delivering the Grand-Prêtre’s ‘Le Souverain des Dieux va paroitre en ces lieux,’ and he performs this duty splendidly, hurling out ‘Fuyez mortels curieux’ (‘Flee, curious mortals’) and ‘Fuyez, et fremissez vous même’ (‘Flee, and tremble’) with graceful but unmistakable authority. Soprano Anna Fraser cleverly differentiates her singing in the rôles of Cléone, a follower of Hébé, and a spirit. What does not vary in her performances of these diverse parts is the beautiful poise of her singing, which is at its glowing best in ‘Voici des Dieux l’azile.’ The Phœbé of mezzo-soprano Margaret Plummer is a superb creation. Though Phœbé’s motives are selfish and her actions duplicitous, Ms. Plummer invests her performance of the rôle with subtlety and frankness of expression that suggest that an unexpectedly noble heart beats within her. Phœbé’s anguished ‘O Ciel! tout cede à sa valeur’ inspires Ms. Plummer to powerfully emotive singing that nonetheless never deviates even momentarily from tastefulness. If there is a fault in Bernard’s libretto, it is that the most poignant description of her predicament is uttered about Phœbé rather than by her: Pollux says of her in the final scene, ‘Un malheureux amour precipitois ses pas, et l’Amour a fait tout son crime’—‘an unhappy love led her astray, and Love was her only crime.’ The only crime in Ms. Plummer’s performance is that her Phœbé is denied the happiness and redemption she deserves, and for this crime only Rameau and Bernard can be indicted.

Télaïre is one of the truly great heroines of French opera, a worthy sister to Gounod’s Marguerite and Bizet’s Micaëla. Promised to the brother of the man she loves, the man whom her sister Phœbé also loves, hers is the path of tragedy from the opera’s beginning. She loves Castor, who just before her wedding to his brother Pollux has confessed their love to his twin. Pollux’s selfless surrender of his intended bride to his brother is thwarted by Phœbé’s machinations, and before the muddle can be sorted out Castor is slain in the mêlée. In a blow, both sisters’ worlds are thrust into disarray. With her ‘Eclatez mes justes regrets,’ Télaïre announces herself at once as a woman of deep feelings and perceptions of the stings of betrayal and loss. The scene in which she and Castor take leave of one another as she prepares for her wedding is heartrending, and the exquisite singing of soprano Celeste Lazarenko unforgettably imparts the barely-suppressed storm of emotions that rages within Télaïre. Her spirit’s endurance is nearly lost in the piercing sorrow of ‘Tristes apprêts, pales flambeaux,’ and the pained exasperation of her realization that Castor’s pledge to his brother is ultimately stronger than his love for her nearly breaks her. The determined resignation in Ms. Lazarenko’s singing of ‘Ils ont aimé ces Dieux’ is tremendously touching, and the way in which she brightens her timbre in singing ‘Dieux qui formez pour nous un sort si plein d’appas’ with Castor in the final scene, as hope is restored to her, is glorious. The stylishness of her singing is unerring, her command of the ornamentation thorough, and the beauty of her voice is consistent from the bottom to the top of her range. Throughout the performance, the shimmer of Ms. Lazarenko’s tone and the accuracy of her singing are phenomenal, but she impresses most not by singing Télaïre but by for two hours simply being this tortured but thriving woman.

The rôle of Pollux was famously sung in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering 1972 studio recording of Castor et Pollux by the celebrated Gérard Souzay, who cast a poignant spell in his performance. New Zealand-born bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams possesses both a stronger voice and a more extensive sense of Rameau’s musical style, however, and his Pollux sets a standard for secure, masculine singing of the part. This is a burly warrior who nonetheless wears his heart on his sleeve, and Mr. Adams’s singing of ‘Non, demeure Castor, c’est moi qui te l’ordonne,’ in which he cedes Télaïre to his brother, simmers with affection, both for Castor and for the fiancée whom he is willing to lose in order to preserve his brother’s happiness. After Castor is felled by Lincée, Pollux’s quest for vengeance is resoundingly conveyed, Mr. Adams’s performance of ‘Peuples, cessez de soupirer’ bristling with energy and testosterone. Mr. Adams launches Act Three with a beautiful account of ‘Présent des Dieux, doux charmes des humains,’ which he follows with singing of rapt involvement in ‘Ma voix, puissant maître du monde.’ Similarly effective is his voicing of the brief but marvelous ‘Tout l’Eclat de l’Olimpe est en vain ranimé,’ but the climax of the performance is the interview between Pollux and Castor in the Underworld. The sheer joy with which Mr. Adams sings ‘O moment de tendresse’ is indescribably moving. A few rough patches in the voice, particularly in passages that cover wide intervals rapidly, are hardly worrying, especially as Mr. Adams unfailingly puts moments of stress to pointed dramatic use. In this, he is complemented with perfect synchronicity by tenor Jeffrey Thompson, who strides through Castor’s music with affable ease. The terror of this haute-contre rôle is very slightly mitigated by the use of Baroque pitch, with a = 392 Hz, but it would be virtually impossible for any modern tenor trained in the Classical manner to completely avoid strain in this music. Mr. Thompson is challenged but never trounced by the part, and the integrity of his performance is a considerable virtue. So, too, is the forthrightness of his singing, which is aided in no small part by his clear diction. He carefully adapts his vibrato in order to blend ideally with both Télaïre and Pollux, and his singing of ‘Tendre amour, qu’il est doux de porter tes chaînes’ in the final scene is supremely elegant. The zenith of Castor’s part is the exquisite ‘Séjour de l’éternelle paix,’ a number that breathes the same air as Orfeo’s ‘Possente spirto’ in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Mr. Thompson mounts the summit of his artistry in singing the piece, focusing his tone with consummate musicality and phrasing with imagination. Despite a few uncomfortable moments at the extreme top of the range, his bright tone is never weak, and a tendency to sing slightly under the pitch in bravura passages is bothersome only when it seems to undermine the singer’s confidence. Nevertheless, the vigor of Mr. Thompson’s singing is splendid, and his achievement in a rôle that defeats even very capable singers is prodigious.

Anyone familiar with Pinchgut Opera’s productions—and, in recent months, the recordings of them on the Company’s own label—will be little surprised by the superlative quality of this Castor et Pollux. The listener who knows the opera only from other recordings, all of which are admirable to varying degrees, may well think that this recording presents a different opera entirely, however. There are unexpected benefits of recording Castor et Pollux in performance rather than in the antiseptic vacuum of a recording studio, and Pinchgut LIVE’s careful management of the recording and editing processes eliminates any defects. Sadly, in many cases artful presentation only enables the listener to hear subpar singing more clearly: in this case, it provides a sonic foundation upon which a first-rate performance is built. Conducted, played, and sung to near-perfection, this Castor et Pollux confirms that Pinchgut Opera has found its niche and fills it grandly.