Reinventing Opera: Rameau's 'Castor and Pollux'

From The Netherlands Opera

WHO'S WHO?

  • Finnur Bjarnasson ......... Castor
  • Henk Neven .................... Pollux
  • Anna Maria Panzarella .... Telaira
  • Veronique Gens ........... Phoebe
  • Judith van Wanroij ...... Cleone
  • Nicolas Teste ............... Jupiter
  • Thomas Oliemans ... High Priest
  • Anders J. Dahlin ........ Mercury
  • Netherlands Opera Chorus and Les Talens Lyriques
  • Christophe Rousset, conductor

THE HIT SINGLE

In Act Four, Castor is in the Elysian fields, longing for Telaira, with the aria "Sejour de l'ternelle paix" — "Stay, eternal peace" — sung in this recording by Colin Ainsworth.

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The "B" Side

Early in the opera, Telaira ponders her complicated love life in "Eclatez, mes justes regrets" — "Cease, my true regrets." The recording features Monica Whicher.

Audio is no longer available

Anna Maria Panzarella and Finnur Bjarnasson

Telaira and Castor (played by Anna Maria Panzarella and Finnur Bjarnasson) are desperate to stay together in Rameau's Castor and Pollux. C. & M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera hide caption

itoggle caption C. & M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera

We don't generally think of music as something that inflames angry mobs, and incites riotous behavior. Politics can cause riots, and so can the occasional European soccer match — but music?.

Still, there have been occasions when even classical music stirred such harsh emotions that rival factions threatened each other with violence.

The most famous musical riot may have taken place in Paris, in 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring." The composer's supporters and detractors clashed so wildly that the performance itself was drowned out. And that wasn't the first time contentious Parisian music lovers were driven to angry attacks and threats of retribution.

In the early decades of the 18th century, French opera was dominated by a single composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. His operas were theatrical extravaganzas but their stories were usually tame, involving the vagaries of love, spiced up by godly intervention and magical special effects.

Then, in 1733, a relatively obscure, 50-year-old composer named Jean-Phillipe Rameau came along with a new breed of musical drama. Instead of appealing to the senses with magic and spectacle, Rameau's operas went straight for the heart. In cinematic terms, Lully's works might be compared to special effects blockbusters, or elaborate costume epics — while Rameau's operas were more like intense, art-house psycho-dramas. Controversy ensued, with vehement confrontations between two, warring musical factions — the conservative "Lullistes" and the cutting-edge "Rameauneurs."

Eventually, of course, even Rameau's music became routine, and while he certainly stirred up the pot, not all of his operas were hits. When he turned up at the Paris Opera with Castor and Pollux, in 1737, even his supporters felt he had done better work, and the drama didn't really hit its stride for another 17 years.

By 1754, another musical battle had started. A visiting Italian opera troupe was all the rage in Paris, and patriotic French music lovers were looking for an antidote to the foreign invaders. By that time, Rameau was considered an old master. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, he a came up with new, more streamlined version of Castor and Pollux. It was an immediate success, and ever since then the opera has been considered one of his finest.

On this edition of World of Opera, it's a production of Rameau's masterpiece by The Netherlands Opera, featuring the instrumentalists of Les Talens Lyriques, led by conductor Christophe Rousset.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Castor and Pollux'

Rameau's 'Castor and Pollux' in Amsterdam

Pollux (Henk Neven, left) is about to marry Telaira (Anna Maria Panzarella), but it's Castor (Finnur Bjarnasson, right) whom Telaira truly loves. C. and M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera hide caption

itoggle caption C. and M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera
Pollux with the High Priest of Jupiter

Pollux (Henk Neven, right) consults the High Priest of Jupiter (Thomas Oliemans), hoping to win Castor's release from the underworld. C. and M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera hide caption

itoggle caption C. and M. Baus/Nederlandse Opera

ACT ONE: In Sparta's royal palace, the princess Phoebe and her companion Cleone are gossiping about the impending marriage of Pollux and the young woman Telaira. It's a dicey situation, because Pollux's half-brother Castor is also in love with Telaira. But Pollux's feelings take precedence because he's the son of the god Jupiter, while Castor's father was a mortal. To make things more complicated, Phoebe is also in love with Castor. Cleone thinks the upcoming wedding will end all the romantic intrigue, but Phoebe has other plans. She wants to enlist a friend of hers, Lyncaeus, to kidnap Telaira.

In the second scene, Telaira is alone, frustrated with her troublesome love life. Before long, she's joined by both Castor and Pollux. Despite his love for Telaira, Castor is willing to stand aside so she can marry his brother. Castor is also preparing to leave the city altogether. That way, Pollux can marry Telaira without any scandalous rumors. But Pollux defers to Castor, saying he'd rather see Castor and Telaira married than lose his brother altogether.

Still, all this good will goes to waste. As people are celebrating the union of Castor and Telaira, word comes that Lyncaeus and his men are on their way to abduct Telaira. The Spartan men take up arms to protect her. In the conflict, Castor is killed.

ACT TWO: Alone in a garden near Castor's mausoleum, Telaira is in mourning when she's joined by Phoebe, who has a proposition. Phoebe thinks she can parlay her royal position into a favor from the gods, and persuade them to bring Castor back to life. But she has one condition. If Castor is returned from the underworld, Telaira must renounce her love for him, leaving Phoebe free to have Castor for herself. Telaira makes the deal.

Word comes that Pollux has finally triumphed in the battle with Lyncaeus — much to Phoebe's dismay. When Pollux arrives, Telaira takes him aside and tells him about Phoebe's offer. He says he can do Phoebe one better. Because Pollux is one of Jupiter's sons, he can appeal directly to Jupiter for Castor's life. When Phoebe hears this, she actually likes the plan. Her scheme had counted on Pollux being out of the picture. Now that he's back, he might not approve.

Pollux, confident that his brother will soon be back among the living, orders a lavish celebration.

ACT THREE: In a grand scene at the Temple of Jupiter, Pollux makes an offering on behalf of his dead brother. Before long, the High Priest of Jupiter emerges with his minions, telling the assembled Spartans to prepare for the god's arrival.

Jupiter appears, and Pollux makes his appeal — saying that without his brother, his own life means nothing. Jupiter refuses to break the laws of Hades. Pollux, as the son of a god, is immortal. But Castor is the son of two humans, and his death cannot be reversed. Pollux declares that if that's the case, he'll just have to go into the underworld himself to find Castor. Jupiter says that's fine with him, but if Castor is released, Pollux must give up his immortality and remain in Hades.

When Pollux actually agrees to this, Jupiter decides to show him what he'll be leaving behind, and calls on all the Celestial Pleasures to provide some entertainment. But Pollux is determined to go through with his rescue plan, and save his brother.

ACT FOUR: At the gates of Hades, we again meet Phoebe, who is still plotting to claim Castor for herself. As she appeals to the spirits of the underworld, she's interrupted by the god Mercury, who is accompanying Pollux. Mercury says Pollux is now the only one who can rescue Castor. With Mercury's help, and Phoebe's encouragement, Pollux defies the demons of Hades and enters the underworld.

The scene changes to the Elysian fields, where the blessed spirits are welcoming Castor. Pollux arrives, and the brothers are reunited. At first Castor is joyful, but then Pollux tells him about the bargain he made: If Castor is released, Pollux must stay behind. And it turns out there's more to the deal. If Castor refuses the arrangement, Telaira will also die. Reluctantly, Castor agrees to leave the underworld, allowing his brother to stay behind. He says goodbye to Pollux, but vows to return for him.

ACT FIVE: In Sparta, Telaira is overjoyed to have Castor back again — until he tells her the reunion is only temporary. They've had their chance to be together, and now he's going back to Hades to exchange himself for Pollux, who also loves her.

Suddenly there's a clap of thunder, Jupiter appears, and Telaira faints in terror. Jupiter frees Castor from his vow to rescue Pollux, and grants Castor immortality. Before long, Pollux also appears. The only one who will die is Phoebe, who has been condemned for her amorous scheming. Jupiter praises the two, loving brothers, and the sky opens. The sun appears in his chariot, and Castor and Pollux take their symbolic places in Jupiter's heavenly palace.

Purchase Featured Music

Rameau: Castor et Pollux (Opera in 5 Acts, 7154 version)

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Rameau: Castor et Pollux (Opera in 5 Acts, 7154 version)
Artist
Kevin Mallon
Label
Naxos
Released
2004

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