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Opera on DVD: 'Castor et Pollux'

available at Amazon
Rameau, Castor et Pollux, A. M. Panzarella, V. Gens, De Nederlandse Opera, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset

(released on April 28, 2009)
Opus Arte D0704 | 2h36

Online score:
Rameau, Castor et Pollux
(scan of the first edition from La Bibliothèque nationale de France)

available at Amazon
Rameau, Castor et Pollux, M. Padmore, S. Piau, V. Gens, A. Mellon, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie
The music of Jean-Philippe Rameau's operas and other stage works -- Hippolyte et Aricie, Les Boréades, Dardanus, Zoroastre, Platée, to name but a few, as well as the instrumental pieces -- is so plainly beautiful that it irritates me to have to defend these works. Defend them I will continue to do, however: prominent opera companies like Washington National Opera have yet to mount any of them. This recent DVD, of De Nederlandse Opera's staging of Castor et Pollux, is another achievement for this body of work. The company gave the pit to Christophe Rousset and his early music ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, who give an outstanding rendition of the score, every detail in place. Perhaps with a little too much tweaking in the balances -- the instruments sound artificially close -- although these are beautiful sounds to hear, especially the florid, pastel tones of the flutes.

Rousset has a generally good cast, with as one of its highlights the spiteful, passionate Phébé of French soprano Véronique Gens. Gens had a sensational turn in this role in the 90s on what remains the best recording of this opera, made by William Christie with Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi France), and she is still arresting dramatically and musically. Anna Maria Panzarella is a fine Télaïre, although Agnès Mellon on the Christie recording is superior for clarity of tone in the gorgeous aria Tristes apprêts. Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij, who has impressed in performances here with Washington's own Opera Lafayette, is excellent as Cléone and a few other supporting roles: she returns to Washington later this month to perform in a concert of French Baroque music, including an extended work by Clérambault and Rameau's Tristes apprêts, with Opera Lafayette (November 15, 7:30 pm) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

Young tenor Anders J. Dahlin has a pleasing light voice in the smaller role of Mercure, a sound that further pointed out the deficiencies of the shouty performances of the two male leads: the Castor of Finnur Bjarnason throaty and overly pointed, and the Pollux of Hank Neven plagued by a swallowed tone that skewed the pitch flat far too often. While Christie's expensive recording is still my favorite, this DVD is of interest as a second option because Rousset uses the 1754 revised version of the opera. (Rameau cut the prologue, tied to political events of the 1737 premiere, and recomposed the first act so that it no longer began so starkly with the funeral of Castor. Truth be told, I find the 1737 version more compelling.) Rousset's version is also better than the other available recording conducted by Kevin Mallon for Naxos, which is also the 1754 revision. The staging, by Pierre Audi, is of the sparing, geometric, modern variety, complete with jagged choreography by Amir Hosseinpour, in its manic gestures a little reminiscent of Mark Morris, for example, and giving a visual equivalent of the energy of Rameau's dance music. The impressive set designed by Patrick Kinmouth moves and forms geometric patterns, recalling a moving abstract painting like a Calder mobile, and Kinmouth's costumes are spartan but with interesting color, the braided wigs recalling archaic Greek athlete or soldier sculptures like the Kroisos kouros.

Get your French opera fix a week from today with the performance of music by Clérambault, Rameau, and other composers by Opera Lafayette (November 15, 7:30 pm) at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, with soprano Judith van Wanroij.

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