Returning triumphantly to one of our favourite composers - Jean Philippe Rameau - Pinchgut took on his Castor & Pollux.
Regarded as his crowning achievement, we chose the second version - the 1754 edition with its more daring orchestration and greater concentration on the characters of Castor and Pollux.
With some of the most beautiful music ever written - try not crying in Télaïre's heart-stoppingly beautiful aria Tristes apprêtes - this is truly one of Rameau's greatest work.
For a start, Rameau’s score is a revelation and, ever true to its promise to put the music first, every part of the Pinchgut ensemble contributes to making it soar. The Orchestra of the Antipodes, led by Alice Evans, plays with rare clarity and superb intonation. The chorus, Cantillation, matches the orchestra’s nimble playing, with some beautiful phrasing and splendid fortissimos.
— The Sydney Morning Herald
Every suspension in the score - and Rameau was a great harmonist, equalled in his time only by Bach - was milked for maximum sensuous pleasure (the libretto keeps talking about the possibility of pleasure without guilt). He (Antony Walker) knew when to let the drums lead the orchestra in the remarkably vivid battle scenes. And he addressed the details of the scoring, especially the combination of the two flutes with the violins - together, antiphonally, in octaves of unison - with impeccable finesse.
For us, Castor & Pollux was one of the most outstanding of Pinchgut’s productions, we enjoyed everything - An amazing cast, an absolutely brilliant orchestra (of course), a wonderful chorus and extremely effective stage settings/production costumes etc. Overall thoroughly enjoyable! Thank you for all your work in putting it all together - all of you are just incredibly amazing.
Went on Monday night and it was stunning. My highlight of the year. Spent half the night with my mouth open in awe. Thanks (and I’m now a huge fan of Rameau).
You have made my xmas!! It was the best Pinchgut performance yet. All of the performers were superb. I do not think Sydney can manage without you all.
Pity I only saw your last night. If I had have been wise enough I would have gone to the opening night and then to each of the other performances. Wow!
1] Castor & Pollux: About the Opera
The story of opera in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries revolves around an extraordinarily volatile negotiation of outside influences. Opera, of course, was an Italian invention and Cardinal Mazarin’s attempt to introduce it at the French court in 1647 was a dismal failure. If France was to have opera, it was to be distinctively French and free of all pernicious foreign tastes. France was to make opera its own. Through the establishment of the Académie Royale de Musique in 1672, Louis XIV bestowed a monopoly for the production of opera in French to his Florentine-born surintendant de la musique, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Whilst heavily influenced by the original Italian model, Lully managed to forge a uniquely French style with the assistance of the great writer Phillipe Quinault. The resulting genre, tragédie en musique, was inspired and guided by Aristotelian models of dramatic narrative. The chorus played a more important role than its Italian progenitor and verisimilitude was underlined by speech-like declamation in both the airs as well as the récitatif ordinaire. Ornamentation – lavish, to the ears of the lovers of Italian lyricism – was understood to have accentuated correct prosody and outlined the richly varied rhyming schemes of French poetry. For the Italians, opera was about vocality and virtuosity; for the French, it was about narrative and nuance.
Lully’s influence was so great throughout the first part of the eighteenth century that it was often very difficult for new composers to have their operas recognized by an increasingly conservative establishment that honoured the strength of existing forms. The pervasive and somewhat unyielding presence of the Lullian tradition may indeed account for Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s late foray into operatic composition. Having arrived in Paris in 1722, Rameau had attracted a formidable reputation as a theorist, composer, and pedagogue but had yet to set an opera even though it appears he had had ambitions to do so. The 50 year-old Rameau bided his time. Apparently it was only on hearing a particularly moving production of Jepthé by his old rival Monteclair in 1732 that stimulated him to take up his pen to set a libretto.
His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), sparked immediate controversy and divided Parisian audiences into those in favour of Rameau’s new style (the ramistes) and those who preferred the operatic status quo (the lullists, who derisively called their opponents ramoneurs, or chimney sweeps). Rameau essentially took existing Lullian conventions and intensified or heightened them, all the while taking into consideration the latest Italianate trends. He kept the diverse time signatures and painstakingly notated rhythms that Lully had initiated for correct declamation in much of the récitatif, but he made it more pliable, expressive, and above all harmonically richer. He introduced many Italianate melismas and turns of phrases in the paradoxically named ariettes (which, despite the diminutive, were the longest and most virtuosic) and he enriched the Lullian monologues and airs de mouvement with accompanied recitative and other kinds of orchestral accompaniment in novel and tonally imaginative configurations. Overall, Rameau deepened French theatrical declamation with a profound sense of dramatic lyricism. Voltaire reported that Rameau told him: “Lully needs actors, but I need singers.”
Many of the lullists feared that Rameau was an Italiophile iconoclast, but in reality he was far from it, and the many revivals of his works bespeak the attention he paid his critics. Many at the time said that Rameau’s operas worked only in revival, and the reappraisals appeared to have presented both composer and audience opportunities to better appreciate and refine the works in question.
In this regard Rameau’s 1737 Castor et Pollux was successful only in its first 1754 revival. By 1764, with the great Sophie Arnould creating her career-defining role of Télaïre, it was hailed by contemporaries as Rameau’s greatest operatic achievement. Many now recognized the composer as France’s greatest since Lully himself, a reputation he enjoyed in no small part due to the great success accorded the revived Castor et Pollux. The 1754 version appeared at the height of the so-called “Guerre des Bouffons” or War of the Comic Actors. Earlier disputes between the ramistes and lullists had taken on a new complexity in the 1750s, with discourse turning more to politicized debates on the relative merits of Italian and French music. Castor et Pollux seems to have put an end to the increasingly empty debates, which had run their course. It very quickly became a touchstone of the genre of tragédie en musique itself. Composers as far afield as Telemann and Graun discussed Rameau’s achievement.
The librettist, Pierre-Joseph Bernard, had wrought a rather unusual subject for the stage. Rather than the usual romantic pairing of man and woman, Bernard instead focussed upon the fraternal devotion of Castor and Pollux. Graham Sadler has argued that in its revised form, Bernard’s libretto “is arguably the tautest, best constructed and most elegant of any that Rameau set.” Sadler notes the powerful conjunction of varying conflicts in the story: the struggle for Pollux between his duty and his unconditional love for Télaïre and Castor vies with the fatal consequences of the jealousy of Phébé.
Above all, Castor et Pollux exhibits in its revised form a great and multi-faceted range of dramatic expression. From the solemnity of Castor’s funeral chorus, to Télaïre’s extraordinary outpouring of grief, to Castor’s mournful air on the Elysian fields, a place of repose in which he finds no succour. Above all, there is the fluid and sensitive setting of Bernard’s elegant poetry, together with the sublime dances of the entrées and divertissements of the Spartans, the shades of Hades and the followers of Hébé. Rameau’s word-setting is particularly beautiful in its extraordinary attention to detail: to pick one detail from many, when the two brothers are reunited in Hades, Rameau manages to perfectly convey through a delicate filigree of mirrored part-writing, unison, dissonance, and resolution the tender reunion of the twins, (“O mon frere, est-ce vous?”). The savagery of the off-stage confrontation in which Castor is slain is depicted in what was understood at the time to be a newly naturalistic fashion, with real-time responses from chorus and soloists alike to represent the bloody tumult of battle. The extraordinary contrapuntal treatment of the trio and chorus of demons in Act 4 was exactly the kind of texture that confused the lullists and galvanized the ramists. Diderot summed up the feelings of many when he wrote that “Old Lully is simple, natural, even, too even sometimes, and this is a defect. Young Rameau is singular, brilliant, complex, learned, too learned sometimes; but this is perhaps a defect on the listeners.” Before Rameau, “no-one had distinguished the delicate shades of expression that separate the tender from the voluptuous, the voluptuous from the impassioned, the impassioned from the lascivious”.
Erin Helyard, 2012
Castor and Pollux are twins, but Pollux as the son of Jupiter is immortal, and Castor (who has a different father) is not. Pollux is the kings of Sparta.
Act 1 At the Palace
Phébé is with her confidante Cléone; they discuss the upcoming marriage of Télaïre to Pollux. Télaïre is in love with Castor, who also loves her. Phébe also loves Castor, and regrets the different gifts she and Télaire were given by the gods; she can call up the spirits of Hades while Télaïre is known for her beauty. Phébé fears that Castor may persuade Pollux to let him marry Télaïre, and has a plan in which Lyncaeus (the twins’ rival) will abduct Télaïre. Télaïre laments her unhappiness. She is joined by Castor who bids her farewell; he has told his brother of his love for her, and now he must go into exile. Pollux enters, and declares himself ready to give his bride to prevent the unhappiness of the two people he loves the most. The Spartans praise their leader and celebrate love. Their festivities are interrupted by the news that Phébé has led Lyncaeus to the palace to abduct Télaïre. In the ensuing battle Castor is killed, and the chorus calls on Pollux to avenge his brother.
Act 2 At Castor’s tomb
Télaïre, despairing, is joined at Castor’s tomb by Phébé who tells her that she can bring Castor back to life, provided that she renounces her love for him. Télaïre agrees. Cries of triumph are heard, announcing the victory of Pollux, who has killed Lyncaeus. Télaïre tells Pollux of Phébé’s plan, but he tells her he will appeal to his father Jupiter instead. Pollux orders a celebration, and the scene is transformed to a pleasant place where athletes dance.
Act 3 The temple of Jupiter
Pollux comes to the temple, and the temple doors open. The High Priest comes out and tells the people to tremble before Jupiter who then appears in full glory. Pollux regrets his own immortality if Castor is to die. Jupiter tells Pollux that Hades has its own laws that he cannot break. Pollux says he will brave Pluto and chain up Cerberus to see Castor again. Jupiter says that if Pollux goes to Hades and sets Castor free he must take his place. Pollux agrees, and Jupiter calls on the Celestial Pleasures to show Pollux what he will lose. Hébé leads the Celestials Pleasures in a dance. Pollux realises that happiness is where one loves and is loved, and is resolved to rescue his brother.
Act 4 The Entrance to the Underworld
Phébé calls on the spirits that guard the dead. Mercury and Pollux appear and Mercury tells Phébé that her efforts are in vain. Pollux and Mercury prepare to enter the cavern, and are met by monsters that guard the entrance. Pollux struggles with them, and Mercury quells the monsters. Phébé now hopes that Castor’s return will be prevented so that he cannot be reunited to Télaïre.
In the Elysian Fields Castor wanders still longing for Télaïre. The Blessed Spirits welcome Castor to this place. Pollux appears and the two brothers greet each other. Pollux tells Castor they will not be together since he must take his place in the underworld. Castor must agree, otherwise Télaïre too will die. Castor agrees but swears to return and Mercury takes him away.
Act 5 In Sparta
Télaïre welcomes Castor, but he tells her they must again part as he has sworn to return to Hades. Télaïre is devastated, and Castor tells her that he must die in order to release his brother, who still loves her. Thunder is heard and Télaïre faints in terror. Jupiter appears, annuls Castor’s oath and grants him immortality. Pollux enters and tells them that Phébé has died in Hades, condemned for her love. The heavens open, and Jupiter praises the love and loyalty of the brothers. The twins take their place in the constellations, and Castor is joined by all in praising love.
3] Jean-Philippe Rameau
Jean-Philippe Rameau lived a long life. Born in Dijon in 1683, he died at age 81 in Paris on 12 September 1764. His life overlapped that of Bach (1685-1750) Handel (1685-1759) Scarlatti (1685-1757) and Telemann (1681-1767).
At this distance it is awe-inspiring to think of five such great composers working, in such different ways, at the same time.
Rameau has been described by a contemporary as having “a sharp chin, no stomach, flutes for legs”. He was extremely tall and thin; “more like a ghost than a man” recorded another. His father was an organist in Dijon, his mother a member of the lesser nobility.
Not much is known about Rameau’s early life. At 18 (1702) he was sent to Italy to study music but got no further than Milan. What he did there is not known but it seems he returned to France within a few months. Records of churches show him popping up in several places in France over the next 20 year, mostly as an organist on short-term contracts. The next confirmed sighting was in 1709 where he succeeded his father at Notre Dame Cathedral but he was gone from there by 1713 because in that year the city of Lyons was about to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht. Jean-Philippe Rameau was appointed Musical Director for the ceremonies but the musical element was cancelled and the money given to the poor. There must have been more to that story.
Rameau continued his nomadic wanderings between 1713 and early 1720s. He appeared in Dijon, Clermont and Lyons, sometimes signing long-term contracts as an organist and failing to honour them. A story about his escape from a contract at Clermont Cathedral has him composing a mass that was so awful that the chapter conceded that they could not keep a composer who wanted to leave. In this period though he wrote Trait de l’Harmonie and Nouveau System de Musique Theoretique. There are published keyboard works and cantatas from this period but he became known as a theoretician before he was recognised as a composer.
By 1724 he was in Paris and, it seems, he never left. The following year two Louisiana Indians were “displayed” in a theatre and Rameau wrote music to accompany their dances: Les Sauvages.
At age 42 Rameau married Marie-Louise Mangot. She was 19 and the daughter of a family of musicians, originally from Lyons. It seems to have been a happy marriage and produced four children of which one boy and one girl survived their father. Rameau continued his theoretical writings and worked as a jobbing organist – there is no record of any fixed appointment anywhere – and teacher.
Remarkably, Rameau only turned his hand to opera at the age of 50. After meeting the wealthy Le Riche de la Pouplinière, who was to become his patron, Rameau produced Hippolyte et Aricie. It was performed privately at La Pouplinière’s house with his singers and orchestra, then, shortly after, at the Paris Opera. The work created a storm, as Lully was regarded as the gold standard for French opera, and his followers, the Lullistes, were very unhappy about any departure from his rules.
Castor et Pollux was an original product of 1737, but as with many of Rameau’s stage works it underwent significant revision, before a much more successful restaging in 1754. A dramatically irrelevant prologue was omitted, and the conflicts of feeling within each character heightened in Act 1. The reception this second time round was nothing short of ecstatic. A further, equally successful revival took place ten years later.
It’s true that towards the end of his life Rameau found his creative powers weakening but his reasoning powers remained. He continued to write and just four months before his death he was ennobled by the Emperor. He seems to have had good health throughout his life until the fever from which he died on 12 September 1764. He was buried in St Eustache, near Les Halles. The precise site in the church is unknown though there is a plaque to his memory in one of the chapels.
By the time of his death, Rameau’s fame ensured a send-off with great ceremony. Three memorial services were held in Paris and others throughout France. His widow lived another 20 years, but nothing is known of his descendants.
Some described Rameau as mean, bad tempered, unapproachable and unsociable. But he had enemies and perhaps these were judgments coloured by disagreements. One story gives greater insight into his character: Michel-Paul-Gui de Chabanon, a young friend (later a member of Académie Française, succeeded in the seat by Victor Hugo), saw Rameau at a performance of Castor et Pollux at Fontainebleau not long before his death. Chabanon records:
I ran towards him to embrace him: he started abruptly to take flight and came back only on hearing my name. Then, excusing the weirdness of his welcome, he said he avoided compliments because they embarrassed him and he never knew how to reply.