The rare breed of reader who’s recently picked The Herald will no doubt have come across the epithet “dead white males.” Some philistines like me might wonder what’s so bad about smart white dudes — imagine primal section-assholes. Nay, not even section-assholes: Those didn’t exist until a certain dead white (Jewish) male invented the anal fixation!
What’s the harm in porcelained cranks?
Opera, that’s what. They wrote operas. They wrote them to be three hours long.
Opera: that classically entwined genre that shrieks at you from a high, high pedestal. 120 D.S.-ers bursting into song. Harold Bloom on acid. Opera lumbers towards you from five centuries’ distance, chasing after extinct categories of love and tragedy. If you’ve ever heard diplomats talk about borders, that’s how opera talks about love: endless quibbles, a neurotic push-and-shove.
How gracefully, then, “Castor et Pollux” annoys you. Really, with great tact. Barely a pinch. A tour de force of understatement, the production of Rameau’s 18th century French masterpiece brings together the Opera Theatre of Yale College and the Undergraduate Ballet Company in a brilliant ode to art, if not quite to opera. As a pageant of individual talents, it stuns. As an exercise in artistic cross-pollination, it cheers. As an opera, “Castor et Pollux” champions the genius of minor irritation. (That’s a compliment. Take it.)
Past the musical overture, your first thought, of course, is “What the fuck is going on?” Besides the baroque wafting in from the orchestra pit — notes that seem to walk on stubby tiptoes — little is identifiable. A drowsy winged angel slouches on a chair in front of a colorfully, loosely dressed ensemble. This you can process. Enter mythological characters you should recognize from ninth grade but don’t — Mars, Minerva, Venus — singing in a French that’s subtitled on a back screen to little success (it’s just not pedestrian enough). In this lexicon, “Go to hell” becomes “Descend to the shores of Hell.”
It took all of 20th century philosophy to cut some of these words down to size: What does it mean if Pleasures are ensemble members running around the stage? What does Love mean with a capital L?
As it turns out, the prologue bears no relevance to the storyline — even Rameau cut it out in his second draft — but as a preview to the show’s later highlights, it earns its keep. Think of the prologue as a guide to a gallery of local talent. Christina Lamell ’16, as Minèrve, climbs to high notes as if she’s taking a pilgrimage there. Between nimble stage movements and wild grins, Michael Protacio ’14, as the angel, builds first notes so lingeringly gorgeous as to glide in and out of song like water. Stolidly masculine, Robert Yaman ’15 surprises with a honeyed, if temperate, voice.
There’s something about these performers that warrants such operatic praise. Lyric guides their creed and their conviction. Take Sylvia Leith ’16, Yale’s newest wunderkind. The plot’s central pole, Leith — who plays princess Télaïre — twists two men around her pinkie: the mortal Castor, just slain at war, and his immortal twin Pollux, who seizes on Castor’s death to court the virtuous Télaïre. After that, sure, things transpire in the story (or, so the subtitles imply). Who cares? Leith’s notes charm into exquisite life a plot of their own: headlong transcendence of cue and formality, of distinctions in music as between loud and soft and high and low. Leith’s professionalism betrays the production’s undercover ambition: the renovation of opera.
But the production hustles to more modest ends: foiling the predictable snooze. While indubitably gifted, Bryce Wiatrak ’14, playing the regal, withholding Pollux, serves as narrative locomotive; his economy of pathos sets a clip for more languorous peers. And while Protacio, who also plays Castor, commands a formidable stage presence, his sweet energy (and bouncy Italian pronunciation of the French) contributes mostly to the show’s basal metabolic rate.
Clearly, stage director Lara Panah-Izadi ’14 knows her audience of cynical opera initiates. And so, by directorial wizardry, “Castor et Pollux” mobilizes a centripetal whirlwind of ballet dancers to sweep boredom off the stage. But only towards the end of the play do dancers and the ensemble synergize. Before then, one group awkwardly huddles off to the side as the other makes a feeble pass at the audience. “Castor et Pollux” pushes through a rotation of characters who take turns at a desperate kinesis centerstage, while others slouch in the shadows. The endless costume changes for the ensemble and constant set changes smartly keep you alert. But at what cost? These ploys thwart a thoughtful orchestration of elements.
And to what end?
“Castor et Pollux” stays running just long enough to deliver, proudly and with brio, the only opera some of us might ever see.