Castor et Pollux
Jean-Philippe Rameau was already 50 years old when he achieved overnight
fame in 1733 with his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie. Commenting
on Hippolyte et Aricie Rameau’s fellow composer André Campra said,
“My God, there is enough music in this opera to make ten out of it;
this man will wipe us all out.” There had been no advances in French
opera since the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1687, but Rameau awoke
it from its slumber. Although like Lully he retained motifs from classical
works of antiquity he filled them with the ideals and themes of the Enlightenment.
Castor et Pollux extols the selfless friendship and fraternal
love of the famous twins.
Télaïre is betrothed to Pollux. In reality, though, she loves his twin brother
Castor, and he loves her. When Pollux realises the depth of the feelings the
two have for each other he relinquishes Télaïre so she can marry his brother.
The celebration of their love that follows is rudely interrupted by an attack
instigated by Phoebe, Telaira’s jealous sister. Castor is killed. Castor and
Pollux are sons of Leda but have different fathers: Pollux is Jupiter’s son and
as such immortal. He descends into the underworld to bring his brother
back for his people, the Spartans, and for Telaira. However, Castor is allowed
to live only on condition that Pollux takes his place in the underworld. Castor
accepts his brother’s sacrifice for one day only; he wants to see Telaira
one more time and say goodbye to her. Jupiter is so deeply touched by this
brotherly love that in the end he bestows everlasting life on Castor as well and
transports the brothers into heaven together – as the constellation Gemini.
Love triumphs over death – an eternal dream of humankind. This dream
comes true here not for a couple of lovers but for two brothers in a particular
kind of patchwork family full of potentially dangerous emotional
entanglements. Rameau’s opera is packed with emotion and drama. It
portrays longing and despair in a particularly moving way in “Tristes
apprêts”, possibly Rameau’s most famous aria, and in the closing aria,