Why is it that when Handel writes operas with mythological plots it’s usually hard not to have a good time – but when Rameau does it I sometimes end up wanting to hit myself over the head with something hard?
I gave Castor and Pollux the old college try last night. The evening ended with the old college fail. It might have been the opera itself, or it might have been sheer cussedness on my part, but I couldn’t get through it. Out of what I think was probably a misplaced sense of obligation, I didn’t stop the dvd – but I listened to it while making soup and cleaning the kitchen and then painting my toenails. I came away from the experience with extremely shiny toenails and a sense that the bit where Telaire is mourning the dead Castor wasn’t half bad.
For the record. There are two versions of this opera out there – it was performed for the first time in the 1730s, and Rameau revised it in the 1750s. The performance I watched was based on the second version, which contains the same basic elements as the first: Castor and Pollux (ever since writing the title of this post, I keep wanting to spell Pollux as if he was the plural of Jackson Pollock) are half-brothers. Pollocks (I give up) is the son of Jupiter, but Castor’s father was mortal. Pollocks is immortal, while Castor is not. They are both in love with a woman named Telaire. Telaire loves Castor. Pollocks, who is to marry Telaire, finds out, and gives her up so that she and his brother can be together. But Telaire’s jealous sister Phoebe, who also loves Castor, contrives an attack on the palace that results in Castor’s death. What to do? Telaire suggests that Pollucks plead with his divine father for help. Jupiter says no. (“What did I tell you after you crashed the Beemer? You’re on your own. Get a goddamned job.”) So, what Pollucks does is he goes down into Hades to take Castor’s place. Phoebe attempts, ineffectually, to interfere. I stopped paying close attention to the plot after this.
This isn’t really relevant to the music, but the 1750s version of this opera also lacks the politically-themed prologue written for the first version from the 1730s. This original prologue was about the 1730s War of the Polish Succession, in which France had been involved. Artistically, I am not sure where I stand on the absence of the War of the Polish Succession from the opera. (It’s one of those interminable eighteenth-century European wars where if you put the Habsburgs, the French, the Prussians, a few affiliated Italians, a dynastic conflict, some bayonets and a cat into a bag and kicked the bag a few times, what you’d get when you dumped out the contents would be a reasonable approximation of the conflict.)
I guess this is one of those open-ended interpretive questions you can apply to any opera, isn’t it. Would this work, big picture, be improved by the addition of a prologue about the War of the Polish Succession? (Most people don’t know this, but this was in fact the original concept for Strauss’s Capriccio. Then someone hit Strauss over the head with something hard.)