Pinchgut Opera explores Rameau’s bizarre operatic love triangle.

New Zealand-born baritone Hadleigh Adams tapped into an unusual source of inspiration for his part in the French opera Castor et Pollux, which revolves around the fraternal love between the eponymous twin brothers. “On the plane heading here from London I watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy,” he says, true to Kiwi form, “and after nine hours of Frodo and Sam I was in tears. It sounds silly, but the love they have is so real, so deeply profound, and in a way that will help me in this role.”

He turns to his Pinchgut Opera co-star, American tenor Jeffrey Thompson. “The intensity of wanting to protect you from the world at whatever cost – it’s such a rare thing in opera because there’s always a romantic element to that dynamic.” 

There is indeed a romantic element to Rameau’s tragédie en musique, composed in 1737 and revived, in this version, in 1754. The immortal Pollux (Adams) and mortal Castor (Thompson), twin songs of Jupiter, are both besotted with princess Télaïre, who returns only Castor’s love. When Castor is killed in battle, Pollux relinquishes the chance to win the girl, instead making the arduous journey to the Underworld and offering to take his brother’s place among the dead. (Happy ending of sorts: their deity father transforms both into the twin stars of Gemini). 

“Most tragédies lyriques are about a man and a woman, but this is about two brothers,” says harpsichordist and Pinchgut Opera artistic director Erin Heylard. “It was remarked on at the time as being somewhat special. Something must have touched a nerve.” It’s true that usually when we see this level of gallant sacrifice on the operatic stage, it is in the name of a man pursuing his (female) paramour, as in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. In this case, though, a French lesson reveals that blood is indeed thicker than water: the brothers use the polite, formal “vous” when speaking to their princess, but address each other with the intimate “tu” – “something surtitles can’t quite capture,” Adams points out. 

Although they have developed a brotherly rapport working together, Thompson didn’t join his co-star on a Lord of the Rings binge; rather it is his own life experience that draws him to the story of familial devotion. “I have an older brother who was a twin, but his twin brother died at birth,” he explains. “He’s four years older and my mother would tell me stories about how my brother was ‘missing something’ before I was born. And when I came along it was like, ‘My twin brother!’ So we formed a very strong bond.” 

Last year’s Pinchgut production, Vivaldi’s Griselda, was all about counter-tenors, featuring three specimens of that rare breed of singer flinging their falsetto towards the heavens. While the Red Priest was writing for castrato divas, however, the French were championing a different voice type: the haute-contre, or high tenor. Thompson, who lives in Paris and was ‘discovered’ by Baroque conductor William Christie, specialises in the rarefied haute-contre repertoire of 17th- and 18th-century France. 

“It’s not much different from the tenors we have today, but it’s more refined,” Thompson explains. “What people don’t realise is that I don’t sing higher than a normal tenor – it’s just that it’s always in that register. Our job is to make it sound like it’s not as high as it really is. On one page I have 50 high A’s, whereas in bel canto it’s about a build-up to a single climactic note. We’re up there all the time.” 

The difference between a tenor and haute-contre, I suggest, is like comparing a sprinter to a marathon runner. Thompsen adds, “It’s not a voice you can train – you’ve got it or you don’t. Singing teachers don’t know how to teach this kind of voice. I was the black sheep: ‘Why aren’t you doing Mozart? Why aren’t you doing Rossini?’ Now I breathe this music; I live this music. It’s my passion.” 

It’s also a voice that is prone to strain and fatigue. “I love when you get the ‘real singers’ in rehearsal doing French Baroque for the first time and after an hour they’re moaning, ‘I’m so tired!’ You don’t get a break to think about your next aria. 

“From William Christie I learned to not sing so beautifully all the time, to not make the French style so precious.” Here Adams interjects, in brotherly jokester style: “Yes, you rarely sound beautiful!” 

To avoid burning out, Thompson mixes the French roles he loves with Handel and more standard repertoire. But taking those precautions, I notice, doesn’t stop him from smoking! He laughs at my scandalised expression as he lights up during our interview. “The French press call me the ‘bad boy du Baroque.’ I don’t take myself too seriously.” 

Unlike his castmate, Adams makes his first foray into the French Baroque in the role of Pollux, after conductor Antony Walker approached him in London. But no stray Kiwi dipthongs here – the young baritone wrote out the entire libretto, translated it, and learned to speak it in rhythm before even tackling the notes, working with a French coach to master Rameau’s lyrical prosody. “It just feels so natural,” he enthuses. “I didn’t think it would feel as good as it does to sing.” His performances next week mark the London-based singer’s professional role debut in Australia, before he relocates to the US as a developing artist with San Francisco Opera.

Castor et Pollux is Pinchgut’s third French Baroque production, following Rameau’s Dardanus in 2005 and Charpentier’s David et Jonathas in 2008 – the latter, like Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, another example of operatic fraternité. “Each time we do it, everyone gets better and better at the style. Now we’ve reached that level,” says Heylard. 

“He is completely dramatic. Bringing out the detail in his score really brings the work to life. He’s the dude, Rameau.”

Pinchgut Opera’s Castor et Pollux runs at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, December 6–10. View event details here.