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See latest reviews of other albums..., September 2016

…this two-DVD set features Christophe Rousset with the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera and Les Talens Lyriques in fabulous production directed by Pierre Audi. The fine cast of soloists includes Anna Maria Panzarella (Télaïre), the wonderful Véronique Gens (Phébé), Finnur Bjarnason (Castor) and Henk Neven (Pollux). Arguably Rameau’s finest creation, Castor et Pollux has rarely been staged so this is a welcome opportunity to see this opera by one of the most important Baroque composers. © 2016 Read complete review

John W Barker
American Record Guide, November 2011

Panzarella creates a full-throated and strongly emotional Telaire…With her darker mezzo voice, Gens survives impressively all the stage-stalking…Bjarnason has a solid tenor voice, Neven a compact and expressive baritone one; both sing very effectively…Rousset, it need hardly be mentioned, offers stylish and secure musical leadership.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Charles T. Downey
Ionarts, November 2010

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…

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.

Brian Wilson
MusicWeb International, February 2009

With a fine set of Castor et Pollux already available on CD—Les Arts Florissants/William Christie, Harmonia Mundi HMC90 1435.37, extracts at bargain price on HMA195 1501—and a less expensive Naxos version which earned Jonathan Woolf’s warm recommendation (8.660118/19) do we need a version on DVD? Emphatically yes, since spectacle is half the story in Lully and Rameau and there is spectacle a-plenty here—for a sample, play the movie clip on the Opus Arte website. You’ll find, too, that these new DVDs cost less than the Christie CD set. 

The 1737 original was considerably reshaped for the 1754 revision employed here: Rousset points out that the revision is more compact and the decision to use it was almost certainly the right one, though Christie prefers the original. Though based on mythology—surprisingly, not Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as I fondly thought—Rameau’s librettist made considerable changes to the plot which, in any case, exists in various classical versions, so that the illustrated synopsis is very useful; it should be played first. In this version, not only does Pollux offer to lay down his immortality for his brother’s sake, Télaïre also renounces her love for Castor so that Phébé may restore him. 

The original version began with a Prologue depicting the funeral of Castor; this was omitted in the revision, along with the references to events of 1736/7, no longer of topical interest. This production, however, neatly provides a kind of replacement Prologue—soon after the overture is under way, we are shown thumbnails of the principal performers, though not told who is which; then the curtain rises to a mime of the betrothal of Pollux and Télaïre, obviating the shots up the orchestral players’ noses which too often feature during operatic overtures. 
Above all, the music comes from Rameau at the height of his very considerable powers; how the Lullistes of the 1750s could decry such music—or, indeed, how anyone could love Rameau and hate Lully—is beyond comprehension. The work’s failure in 1737 is as inexplicable as its popularity after 1754 is fully deserved. 

The lively account of the overture sets the tone for the whole performance—though the orchestra plays in obscurity from the pit, the sound is clear and well focused. At 4:48, on paper Christophe Rousset’s tempo is a little statelier than Kevin Mallon’s on Naxos, but in practice he sounds sprightly enough and his tempi thereafter are generally a shade faster than Mallon’s. 

All the principals—indeed, all the singers, including the choir—are very good. Even Phébé’s maid Cléone (Judith van Wanrij) sings very well. Véronique Gens not only sings extremely well but convinces us of the torment in Phébé’s soul; if I prefer her for this reason to Anna Maria Panzarella as Télaïre, the preference is marginal—both are splendid and there is just enough difference in vocal timbre between them. 

Finnur Bjarnson as Castor is more lyrical than Henk Neven as Pollux, who compensates by sounding more authoritative, a distinction appropriate not only to their voices, tenor and bass-baritone respectively, but also to their roles in the opera. Again, both sing extremely well, after a very slightly hesitant start from Bjarnson. The singing of both seems to develop in stature as their characters develop. Nicolas Testé’s Jupiter is splendidly godlike in manner and voice and Anders Dahlin is excellent in the four small roles which he sings. Though only two of the cast are Francophones, the diction of all is excellent. 

The recording is excellent throughout, with just the right balance between voices and orchestra. Even as television sound it’s more than acceptable; played through an audio system, it’s even better. The picture quality is also excellent—played with hdmi upscaling, who needs Blu-ray? 

Patrick Kinmouth’s set is plain with a stylised representation of the constellation Castor and Pollux in one form or another throughout. It’s particularly effective at such moments as the end of Act 2, when the central section opens to admit Castor on his passage to Hades. The plainness is combined with a 21st-century high-tech look, ‘modernised but not updated’ as the producer, Pierre Audi, puts it. He’s probably as tired of puns on his name as I am of sharing the name of the most famous of the Beach Boys, but the motto of his automotive namesake seems especially apt: Vorsprung durch Technik. In the absence of bottomless funds to reproduce the lavish original sets and costumes, I prefer such a stylishly minimalist approach, as on the Christie version of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.

The costumes are timeless: the main characters and the dancers are in shades of red, violet and purple. Like the production overall they combine the stylised and stylish with modernity. The same is true of Amir Hosseinpour’s choreography: I wasn’t wholly convinced by the modern expressive style of dancing—quite unlike anything that the original audience would have seen—but, like the production overall, none of it jarred as much as many recent updatings of opera, and it’s all very well done. I found the dancing of the Airs pour les athlètes at the end of Act 2 and the scenes in Hades—shades of the Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice—more effective than the menuets and gavottes at the close of Act 1. 

The English subtitles are good, but occasionally the modern idiom jarred—“This spirit was not out for tears; it was out for blood” is hardly felicitous. I’m still waiting for someone to invent the technology to have the original text and translation on-screen together. 

The booklet is lavishly illustrated and more informative than such DVD booklets usually are. There’s no libretto, of course, or even a printed synopsis, but the latter is very effectively provided visually and aurally on the first DVD. Though the recording has appeared in comparatively short order, there is no sign of its having been rushed in any way.

Lindsay Kemp
Gramophone, February 2009

Sparta meets Star Trek in a mostly stellar production from Pierre Audi

This production of Rameau’s second great Tragédie lyrique has come swiftly to DVD, having been recorded at Netherlands Opera in January 2008. Unfussy yet handsomely done, it sits well with the leanly focused nature of the work (it is set in Sparta, after all), finding space for spectacle and dance without forgetting its essential task of telling the story of the twins whose fraternal love excepts no level of self-sacrifice. Patrick Kinmoth’s spare but luminous sets and costumes (which seem to mix the Hellenic with a hint of Star Trek: The Next Generation) are much to the point, and Pierre Audi’s direction tempers a rather impersonal formality with just enough human sensitivity to keep things interesting. The choreography by Amir Hosseinpour, which seeks to double up the emotions of the singers, seems fidgetingly out of kilter with the mood of the music on occasion but has moments of inspiration and beauty, above all in the underworld scenes. The filming is quietly perceptive, the sound full and clear.

Castor et Pollux was not a huge success at its first run in 1737, and is given here in the 1754 revision that kick-started a long run of belated popularity for the piece. Fortunately, it still includes the superb mourning scene for the slain Castor in Act 2, with the heart-rending elegy of his lover Télaïre (“Tristes apprêts”), declared by Debussy to be “the sweetest, most touching lament that ever sprang from a loving heart”. Its performance here by Anna Maria Panzarella is moving indeed. Later highlights include a typically demonic underworld episode and a beautifully evoked scene in the Elysian Fields, where Pollux, having already given up Télaïre to his brother, offers to take his place in the realm of the dead. It goes without saying that Rameau’s brilliantly composed airs, expressive recitatives, infectious dances and sturdy choruses are of untouchable high quality.

The good-looking cast includes two French singers: Véronique Gens, haughty and magnificent as the tormented Phébé who plots jealously against Télaïre; and Nicolas Testé, a vigorous and sonorous Jupiter. As Castor, Finnur Bjarnason struggles in Act 1 to find the agility to sing jubilantly of love but later on holds the stage convincingly in his underworld lament “Séjour de l’eternelle paix”. Henk Neven is a sensitive and noble Pollux, and there is attractive singing from Judith van Wanroij as Phébé’s confidant Cléone. The chorus, though banished to the pit, are lusty and very up-to-the-mark, and Christophe Rousset conducts all to perfection.

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