Reinventing Opera: Rameau's 'Castor and Pollux'

Castor & PolluxWe don't generally think of music as something that inflames angry mobs, and incites riotous behavior. Politics can cause riots, and so can the occasional European soccer match. But music?

Still, there have been occasions when even classical music stirred such harsh emotions that rival factions threatened each other with violence.

The most famous musical riot may have taken place in Paris, in 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. The composer's supporters and detractors clashed so wildly that the performance itself was drowned out. And that wasn't the first time contentious Parisian music lovers were driven to angry attacks and threats of retribution.

In the early decades of the 18th century, French opera was dominated by a single composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. His operas were theatrical extravaganzas but their stories were usually tame, involving the vagaries of love, mildly spiced by godly intervention and magical special effects.

Then, in 1733, a relatively obscure, 50-year-old composer named Jean-Phillipe Rameau came along with a new breed of musical drama. Instead of appealing to the senses with magic and spectacle, Rameau's operas went straight for the heart. In cinematic terms, Lully's works might be compared to special effects blockbusters, or elaborate costume epics -- while Rameau's operas were more like intense, art-house psycho-dramas. Controversy ensued, with vehement confrontations between two, warring musical factions the conservative "Lullistes" and the cutting-edge "Rameauneurs." And the latter term was likely invoked by Lully's followers, at Rameau's expense; spelled slightly differently, the word "ramoneur" means "chimneysweep."

Eventually, of course, even Rameau's music became routine, and while he certainly stirred up the pot, not all of his operas were hits. When he turned up at the Paris Opera with Castor and Pollux, in 1737, even his supporters felt he had done better work, and the drama didn't really hit its stride for another 17 years.

By 1754, another musical battle had started. A visiting Italian opera troupe was all the rage in Paris, and patriotic French music lovers were looking for an antidote to the foreign invaders. By that time, Rameau was considered an old master. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, he a came up with new, more streamlined version of Castor and Pollux. It was an immediate success, and ever since then the opera has been considered one of his finest.

On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rameau's Castor and Pollux from the Berlioz Opera House, at the Montpellier Festival in France. Tenor Colins Ainsworth and baritone Florian Sempey sing the title roles, in a production led by conductor Raphaël Pichon.