Castor and Pollux - English National Opera, 19 November 2011
There was commotion and controversy at the Coliseum on Saturday night even before the show began. The automatic ticket collection machines weren't working (something to do with the new booking system, apparently) and with half the tickets offloaded at bargain prices just days before, loads of people needed to pick them up. So the queue snaked from the box office to the far stairs, and back again, and then again, and finally, when the foyer could fit no more, out of the front door. We queued for 15 minutes; others, I suspect, even longer. They were still letting people into the auditorium when the show finally began, 15 minutes late.
If you're visiting ENO in the next few days, count this as a warning.
So was it worth the hassle?
I've never seen a Barrie Kosky production that wasn't ugly, incoherent or self-consciously shocking, sometimes all three. This was no exception, as the universally negative reviews indicate. But I couldn't pass up the rare opportunity to hear a Rameau opera in the flesh, and at only £20 for a decent ticket.
The first problem was that I couldn't see all the action - and I was in a 'good' seat, about a third of the way across the stalls. The problem was the projecting box-style set, which cuts off the viewing angle for anyone not in the central ten or so seats, reducing visibility to 25% or less for those at the very far sides. ENO must have realised this as soon as the set was up - how they had the cheek to charge anyone the full £92 for a side stalls seat with a half view I don't know. The best way to discourage new visitors from exploring opera further is to leave them feeling ripped off.
At least there wasn't much to miss. The set is a bare box garnished with the occasional mound of potting compost, the costumes straight from the office. Kosky's concept, if you can call it that, is to externalise the characters' desires, emotions and feelings. When they're angry or excited, they run around banging into walls. Affection means hugging each other like chimps in a zoo. Lust means sitting on someone's chest - congratulations to Allan Clayton (Castor) for delivering his lines with the full weight of a soprano on his sternum. Clayton really draws the short straw in the staging - his death involves self-burial accompanied with facefuls of potting compost.
Perhaps the only advantage of all this hyperactivity is the creation of a flowing narrative, despite the many dance passages which have been left in. If nothing else, the continuous blur of physical activity helps to meld these with the singing (actual ballet is thankfully not attempted). The thundering hooves of the chorus are less welcome, an unnecessary layer of unscored percussion; I'm always surprised when conductors don't flex their authority in these matters.
Raised skirts and peeled-off knickers form a tiresome and faintly misogynistic visual leitmotif. The 'shock' climax is a predictable display of limp todgers. Really, what is the point?
Fortunately the musical compensations are ample. Christian Curnyn has forged a unique sound, Rameau like you've never heard him before. The ENO orchestra is not a period band, and even with the addition of baroque flutes and old-style violin bows, they still sound like themselves. Vibrato is curtailed, but the phrasing is leisurely, the articulation smooth and the intonation consistent. Truly revelatory.
Though this opera is no vocal display piece, the singing too was superb. Allan Clayton's bright, clear tenor doesn't quite have the agility for the faster passages, but the sound he made, especially in the higher reaches, was so glorious you just can't care. Roderick Williams sang Pollux with authority and a firm grasp of the elegant style demanded. Sophie Bevan as Télaïre and Laura Tatulescu as Phébé created real characters of the (underwritten) two sisters who compete for Castor's affections. Amanda Holden's wordy translation challenged all the singers, but diction was largely clear.
Worth £20 if you can still get tickets.
production photos, above - Alastair Muir for ENO
curtain call photos, below - intermezzo.typepad.com