Castor et Pollux


Castor et Pollux

"Castor et Pollux" ("Castor and Pollux") is an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau, first performed on 24 October, 1737 at the Académie royale de musique in Paris. The librettist was Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard, whose reputation as a salon poet it made. This was the third opera by Rameau and his second in the form of the "tragédie en musique" (if the lost "Samson" is discounted). Rameau made substantial cuts, alterations and added new material to the opera for its revival in 1754. ["Viking" p.834. The exact date of the revival is unknown, but was probably 8 or 11 June, 1754] Experts still dispute which of the two versions is superior. Whatever the case, "Castor et Pollux" has always been regarded as one of Rameau's finest works.

Performance history and reception

"Castor et Pollux" appeared in 1737 while the controversy ignited by Rameau's first opera "Hippolyte et Aricie" was still raging. Conservative critics held the works of the "father of French opera", Jean-Baptiste Lully, to be unsurpassable. They saw Rameau's radical musical innovations as an attack on all they held dear and a war of words broke out between these "Lullistes" and the supporters of the new composer, the so-called "Rameauneurs". This controversy ensured that the premiere of "Castor" would be a noteworthy event. As it turned out, the opera was a success. [Bouissou pp.16-17] It received twenty performances in late 1737 but did not reappear until the substantially revised version took to the stage in 1754. This time there were thirty performances and ten in 1755. Graham Sadler writes that "It was [...] "Castor et Pollux" that was regarded as Rameau's crowning achievement, at least from the time of its first revival (1754) onwards." ["New Grove French Baroque Masters" p.259]

Revivals followed in 1764, 1765, 1772, 1773, 1778, 1779 and 1780. The taste for Rameau's operas did not long outlive the French Revolution but extracts from "Castor et Pollux" were still being performed in Paris as late as 1792. During the nineteenth century, the work did not appear on the French stage, though its fame survived the general obscurity into which Rameau's works had sunk; Hector Berlioz admiringly mentioned the aria "Tristes apprêts". [Girdlestone p.205] The first modern revival took place at the Schola Cantorum in Paris in 1903. [Performance history: Girdlestone pp.230-31] Among the audience was Claude Debussy.

Roles

ynopsis

"The synopsis is based on 1737 version"

Prologue

The allegorical prologue is unrelated to the main story. It celebrates the Treaty of Vienna of 1736 which put an end to the War of the Polish Succession, in which France had been involved. In the prologue, Venus, goddess of love, subdues Mars, god of war, with the help of Minerva.

Act 1

Background note: Castor and Pollux are famous heroes. Despite being twin brothers, one of them (Pollux) is immortal and the other (Castor) is mortal. They are both in love with the princess Telaira (Télaïre), but she loves only Castor. The twins have fought a war against an enemy king, Lynceus (Lyncée) which has resulted in disaster: Castor has been slain. The opera opens with his funeral rites. Telaira expresses her grief to her friend Phoebe (Phébé) in "Tristes apprêts", one of Rameau's most famous arias. Pollux and his band of Spartan warriors interrupt the mourning bringing the dead body of Lynceus who has been killed in revenge. Pollux confesses his love for Telaira. She avoids giving a reply, instead asking him to go and plead with his father Jupiter, king of the gods, to restore Castor to life.

Act 2

Pollux expresses his conflicting emotions in the aria "Nature, amour, qui partagez mon coeur". If he does what Telaira says and manages to persuade Jupiter to restore his brother to life, he knows he will lose the chance to marry her. But he finally yields to her pleas. Jupiter descends from above and Pollux begs him to bring Castor back to life. Jupiter replies he is powerless to alter the laws of fate. The only way to save Castor is for Pollux to take his place among the dead. Pollux, despairing that he will never win Telaira, decides to go to the Underworld. Jupiter tries dissuade him with a ballet of the Celestial Pleasures led by Hebe, goddess of youth, but Pollux is resolute.

Act 3

The stage shows the entrance to the Underworld, guarded by monsters and demons. Phoebe gathers the Spartans to prevent Pollux from entering the gate of the Underworld. Pollux refuses to be dissuaded, even though Phoebe declares her love for him. When Telaira arrives and she sees Pollux's passion for her, Phoebe realises her love will be unrequited. She urges the demons of the Underworld to stop him entering ("Sortez, sortez d'esclavage/Combattez, Démons furieux"). Pollux fights the demons with the help of the god Mercury and descends into Hades.

Act 4

The scene shows the Elysian fields in the Underworld. Castor sings the aria "Séjours de l'éternelle paix": the beautiful surroundings cannot comfort him for the loss of Telaira, neither can a Chorus of Happy Spirits. He is amazed to see his brother Pollux, who tells him of his sacrifice. Castor says he will only take the opportunity to revisit the land of the living for one day so he can see Telaira for the last time.

Act 5

Castor returns to Sparta. When Phoebe sees him, she thinks Pollux is dead for good and commits suicide so she can join him in the Underworld. But Castor tells Telaira he only plans to remain alive with her for a single day. Telaira bitterly accuses him of never having loved her. Jupiter descends in a storm as a deus ex machina to resolve the dilemma. He declares that Castor and Pollux can both share immortality. The opera ends with the "fête de l'univers" ("Festival of the Universe") in which the stars, planets and sun celebrate the god's decision and the twin brothers are received into the Zodiac as the constellation of Gemini.

The 1754 revisions

The prologue was completely cut; it was no longer politically relevant and the fashion for operas having prologues had died out. The opera no longer begins with Castor's funeral; a wholly new Act One was created explaining the background to the story: Telaira is in love with Castor but she is betrothed to Pollux, who is prepared to give her up to his brother when he finds out. Unfortunately the wedding celebrations are violently interrupted by Lynceus and a battle breaks out in which Castor is killed. Acts Three and Four were merged and the work as a whole shortened by cutting a great deal of recitative. ["Viking" p.835]

elected recordings

* "Castor et Pollux" (1737 version) Concentus Musicus Wien, Harnoncourt (Teldec, 1972)
* "Castor et Pollux" (1737 version) Les Arts Florissants, William Christie (Harmonia Mundi, 1993)
* "Castor et Pollux" (1754 version) English Bach Festival Singers and Orchestra, Farncombe (Erato, 1982)
* "Castor et Pollux" (1754 version) Aradia Ensemble; Opera in Concert Chorus, Kevin Mallon (Naxos, 2004)

References

ources

*Cuthbert Girdlestone "Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work" (Dover paperback edition, 1969)
*"The New Grove French Baroque Masters" ed. Graham Sadler (Grove/Macmillan, 1988)
*"The Viking Opera Guide" ed. Amanda Holden (Viking, 1993)
*Booklet notes to the Christie recording by Sylvie Bouissou

External links

* [http://perso.orange.fr/jean-claude.brenac/Operabaroque.htm Le magazine de l'opéra baroque by Jean-Claude Brenac (in French)]


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