For the past ten years, Pinchgut Opera has established a reputation for excellence through mounting one opera production annually in Sydney (the name derives from an island in Sydney’s harbour, established as a prison from the beginnings of settlement). Their focus has hitherto been on lesser-known Baroque works, with a few later 18th-century outliers. Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, performed here in the revised 1754 version, was an excellent choice, allowing audiences to hear a work thought by some to be the composer’s crowning achievement. Nowadays Rameau is perhaps best remembered as a theorist, but this production made a compelling case for reassessing his music.
As a first-time Pinchgut attendee, I was curious to see how they would manage in the City Recital Hall, which, as its name suggests, does not have a pit. A few months ago, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra put on Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in the same space, and left the instrumentalists on stage. This time, some rows of seats were removed, and the orchestra was placed in full view but below the stage itself. A spare but effective set was assembled, enclosed by a lattice structure, and some minimal props were moved around by the cast to act as tombs (Act II), the pit for the demons (Act IV), and finally as the ladder to heaven (Act V). Lighting changes also assisted in the delineation of scenes and moods, such as the use of strobe flashes when Jupiter entered. The sight of the King of the gods appearing on a narrow gangway fifteen metres up, a veritable deus ex machina, was especially memorable.
Following the operas of his great French precursor, Lully, Rameau eschewed the binary recitative-aria division that characterised contemporary Italian opera seria. The music unfolded in a fluid and flexible series of ariettes, dances, choruses, recitatives. Two professional dancers (Sean Marcs and Adam Murray) took on the more acrobatic numbers, seemingly serving as surrogates for Castor and Pollux (immediately after the former’s death, only one danced). However, to my mind the most effective number was when female chorus members (as followers of Hébé) performed some simple figurations and gestures in Act III.
Jeffrey Thompson as Castor was one of the most exciting singers on the night: his histrionics might have pushed the boundaries at times, but he was deeply compelling, and outshone his semi-divine brother, Pollux (Hadleigh Adams), who improved after a slightly rocky start. (Incidentally, the opera starts out as a hackneyed love triangle, where both brothers love the same woman, but after a host of self-sacrificing manoeuvres, both brothers are divinised and the girl is entirely forgotten.) Of the female roles, Celeste Lazarenko as Télaïre exhibited exquisite tonal control in the softer passages, while Margaret Plummer was more vocally than dramatically effective as the villainess-for-love, Phoebé. Anna Fraser, who took on a variety of smaller roles, had in some ways the most thrilling sound – big and effortless. Pascal Herington and Mark Donnelly impressed in their small roles, while Paul Goodwin-Groen dominated as Jupiter. The chorus, drawn from the members of Cantillation, was in excellent voice, whether as veiled demons, seductive graces, or bystanders conveying the tale of Castor’s death to us.
The Orchestra of the Antipodes under the direction of Antony Walker was outstanding: the articulation in the opening dotted figures was crisp, and the brief woodwind phrases answered tutti later in the Overture were a sheer sonic delight. Special praise must go to the continuo section, led by co-artistic director Erin Helyard, who was unobtrusively imaginative in his realisation of the figured bass. Sonic inventiveness continued throughout, such as the use of col legno (striking the strings with the wood of the bow) during the martial “Eclatez, fieres trompettes” that closed Act II. The orchestra added two newly made bassoons, replicas of early 18th-century instruments, to its store of period instruments for this production.
The program booklet was above average too: it included an erudite note on the work by Helyard, and the entire libretto in French and in a new English translation by Natalie Shea. Translations of Italian operas were certainly distributed in London in the early 18th century, but what with surtitles and lowered house lights these days, it was rather redundant during the performance (it was supplied, we were gravely informed, “for future reference”). Given how appealing the opera seemed, some will definitely want to get hold of a recording – perhaps this one, when it is released – so this is not as remote an eventuality as it might seem.