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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Castor and Pollux (1754 version)

Castor – Colin Ainsworth (tenor)
Pollux – Joshua Hopkins (baritone)
Télaïre – Monica Whicher (soprano)
Phébé/Hébé – Meredith Hall (soprano)
Jupiter – Giles Tomkins (bass baritone)
Cléone – Renée Winick (soprano)
Le Grand Prêtre – Brian McMillan (baritone)
Mercure – Joey Niceforo (tenor)
A Spartan Soldier 1 at the end of Act 1 – Michael Lee (tenor)
A Spartan Soldier 2 at the end of Act 1 – Matthew Lee (tenor)
A Voice at the end of Act I – Lorelle Angelo (soprano)
Another Voice at the end of Act I – Catherine Lippitt Erickson (soprano)
Opera in Concert
Arcadia Ensemble/Kevin Mallon
Recorded in Grace Church on the Hill, Toronto, February 2003
NAXOS 8.660118/19 [2 CDs: 140.43]
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Rameau’s success was hard won. It wasn’t until his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733, that he achieved a measure of fame but he had to wait until he was fifty. Four years later came Castor and Pollux and it exacerbated the divide between supporters of the established verities of Lully and the adherents of the new school as exemplified by Rameau, a schism not as bloody as the religious feuds of the time but every bit as ideologically entrenched. By 1754, when he came to revise the work, French opera was beginning to feel the strength of the prevailing Italian wind and so Rameau and his original librettist, the well-known poet Pierre-Joseph Bernard, reworked the opera extensively. The plot was tightened, the prologue dropped and a new Act One was written. The version recorded here is in an edition by the conductor Kevin Mallon and is based on a copy of the 1754 version and he has restored the Act V Chaconne, which wasn’t in the edition he consulted. Since there’s no mention of percussion in the score Mallon has added some and this is especially notable, as the notes rightly suggest, in the thunder passages.

The original 1733 edition has been recorded by forces under William Christie on Harmonia Mundi, Concentus Musicus Wien and Harnoncourt on Teldec and the English Bach Festival and Charles Farncombe on Erato. The later version has been recorded before – I’ve not heard it – by Musique du Lumière and Jean-Christophe Frisch on Astrée. Mallon and his forces clearly took the opportunity to work on their interpretation through a series of live performances and it shows in tight concision and good ensemble work – deft playing and musical, adaptable singing. Since there is so much declamatory writing and since recitative is dominant over set-piece arias the cast needs to be properly attuned both to razor-sharp linguistic inflection and to general pacing of the recitativo core of the work. This is especially true when it comes to the revised libretto; whether in the original or even in the 1754 version Bernard’s text is one of the most convincing in eighteenth century French opera.

We can tell from the off that the orchestra is ready for the colourful writing. The characterful bassoon writing in the Act I Overture is especially noticeable and the string players make a good and well-shaped contribution throughout. The cast is generally fine as well. Meredith Hall copes well with the tessitura of her dual roles but does sometimes sound a little taxed up top in her Act I Scene I passages. Actually she and Monica Whicher’s Télaïre are rather similar sounding sopranos – difficult always to differentiate. As Castor Colin Ainsworth has a light, young-sounding and entreating tenor – though his vibrato does have a habit of opening out at phrase endings and the divisions of the Act I Quel bonheur cause him a few uneasy moments. Whicher’s finest moment probably comes in Act II’s Tristes apprêts, which she sings with moving power. As with Castor, so with Pollux – Joshua Hopkins’ attractive, warm baritone shares a tendency to slightly undisciplined terminal vibrato (sample Act III’s Présent des dieux). The smaller roles are all sensitively taken.

The combination of the balletic, purely orchestral and juxtaposed aria and recitativo elements creates an organically satisfying and enlivening work There’s fine animation in the drum and fife exploits of the martial Dance and Tambourin of Act I, the dramatic chorus that opens Act II, the excellently galvanic rhythm of the same Act’s Scene IV, the good violin solo in the same act, and the affectingly wandering harmonies of Castor’s Act IV Scene IV Séjour de l’éternelle paix. The acoustic is sympathetic, and Mallon’s direction idiomatic and well paced. He has clearly worked extensively with his young Canadian cast on the question of apposite ornamentation and the results are persuasive. At Naxos’s superbudget price this twofer gets a warm recommendation.

Jonathan Woolf

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