Toronto-based Opera in Concert continued its exploration of Baroque opera with Rameau's Castor et Pollux. First performed in 1737, though substantially revised by the composer in 1754, the work served on the frontlines of the famous Querrelle des Bouffons. This lively culture war waged in contemporary Paris pitted domestic opera traditions against Italian imports (although, as it escalated, the querrelle masked a more serious political debate in France). The opera was adopted in the cut and thrust of all the pamphleteering as an eloquent argument for local culture, and enjoyed considerable popularity. This added significance is lost now except in academic terms, but it's not hard to see why it was conscripted to the cause. It's a work of noble beauty and elegance, packing a powerful dramatic punch despite its mythological story line and (to modern ears) the studied conventions of 18th- century French music and music theatre. The orchestration, rich in its coloring and rhythmic variety, rises above mere accomp animent with a dramatic purpose that's more characteristic of later times.
The plot defies description in a few words. Suffice to say that it involves the two brothers of the title, two sisters, somewhat bewildering love triangles, a trip to Hell and divine intervention. What starts out as a story about lovers becomes more a paean to brotherly love: the sisters sort of fade from the scene while the brothers end up being, literally, happy ever after. While the plot of Rameau's masterpiece commands a willing suspension of belief, his development of the main characters is more true to life. This is an opera about human feelings and passions, with contrasting characters and complex responses. OinC's production happily played to this strength in its choice of soloists. As the brothers, baritone Joshua Hopkins' robust and rock-solid singing as Poliux was the perfect counterpoint to the gentler disposition and sweeter sound of tenor Colin Ainsworth's Castor. A student at McGill University, Hopkins in fact sounded as if his voice were a few sizes too big for the music, though that tended to underline the contrast with Castor, whose long and high-written lines were handled with graceful aplomb by Ainsworth. The two female protagonists were equally well presented, with Meredith Hall adopting a harder tone to contrast the scheming Phebe with the softer-sounding Monica Whicher. All four principals were particularly effective as singer-actors, overcoming the limitations of both Rameau's opera and the concert-hall staging.
Kevin Mallon conducted his periodinstrument Aradia Ensemble deftly. He let the music evolve at its own measured pace, and made the most of the multitude of effects that gives Rameau's score more variety than at first seems likely or possible. There was vivid support, too, from the OinC chorus, a number of whose members, as usual, took the smaller roles.
To conclude its season, OinC put on a welcome performance of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. Relatively neglected (as are seven of the composer's 10 operas), it's a late work, written in 1835 between the much better-known Norma and I Puritani. The sombre tale was not well received at first, though it was frequently revived in Europe before tastes for Wagner and Italian verismo did bel canto in at the end of the 19th century. Even today, after decades of the be! canto revival, stagings of Beatrice remain few and far between.
The story of a noble dysfunctional family, based on fact, is pure opera. Beatrice's husband, Filippo, who married her to get the dukedom of Milan, is now mainly interested in one Agnese dei Maino. For her part, Agnese is in love with Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia, who in turn is secretly in love with Beatrice. Filippo catches Beatrice and Orombello together (not amorously), which gives him the opportunity to get rid of them both, aided and abetted by a vengeful Agnese. The rest of the opera is full of trials and torture, accusations and denials, pleas and counterpleas. But in the end, Beatrice goes to the scaffold anyway, oddly triumphant in escaping the whole sorry mess. It is music that driyes this opera, with Bellini's eloquent and dramatic lines and his wonderful vocal ensembles carrying the day. Though the orchestration was, of course, missing in this performance, music director and pianist Dixie Ross Neill made the most of the shifting moods and emotions captured in Bellini's sometimes sombre, sometime s fiery score. Robert Cooper directed the OinC chorus, which in this opera plays an important dramatic role.
OinC was again well served by its soloists. Marcel van Neer was indisposed, but his account of Orombello (not one of Bellini's most rewarding tenor roles) was still an effective foil to Jonathan Cane's Filippo. He might have been a meaner villain, hut his baritone, which gained lustre as the performance progressed, was firmly focused and his performance refined. The two female leads were equally well matched. Mezzo Lauren Segal effectively etched the conflicting emotions of Agnese as the opera unfolded, while soprano Susan Eyton-Jones displayed a confident coloratura and a fine-tuned control of dynamic range in the title role. With OinC chorus members Matthew Zadow and Joey Niciforo taking on the minor roles of Rizzardo del Maino and Anichino, the entire creative ensemble made a very strong case for an opera that transcends the limitations of its plot and libretto.