Rameau’s music is rapidly re-establishing itself after a long period of severe neglect as some of the most delightful work written for the early eighteenth century stage. The pleasure-loving and hedonistic court of Louis XV of France provided him with ample opportunities for stage spectacle, virtuosic singing and orchestral effects. These he employed for the glorification of the corrupt ancien régime
whose excesses were ultimately to culminate in the French Revolution. Many of his stage works fell into the Lullian tradition of panegyrics praising the supposedly enlightened rule of the decadent monarchy and aristocracy. Platée
is something of an exception. Although it was written to celebrate the wedding of the Dauphin to the notoriously ill-favoured Infanta of Spain, Rameau wrote a comedy satirising the sham marriage of Jove to the water nymph Platea, who was cruelly likened to a frog. This somewhat surprising slap in the face to the nuptials seems to have been passively accepted by the court; as Peter Noelke’s booklet note observes, “following the wedding celebrations which lasted for several days, the guests were probably incapable of taking things in properly.” At all events the burlesque did Rameau’s career no harm, since he was subsequently appointed court composer. The unfortunate Marie Teresia, the butt of the joke, never became Queen thanks to the premature death of her husband, although her even more unfortunate son Louis XVI was to die on the guillotine.
Be that as it may, for Platée
Rameau wrote one of his most entertaining and adventurous scores. The orchestral writing, with the full body of court musicians in mind, is something quite spectacular in its often grotesque effects imitating bird calls, donkeys braying and the noises of the frog pool. It is superbly rendered here by Les Musiciens du Louvre, who relish every moment of the inventive score. Nor does the singing let the side down. Paul Agnew is a tower of strength as the unfortunate nymph — a rare appearance of a male travesti
singer in a French opera of any period — and Mireille Delunsch also distinguishes herself as La Folie with a sparkling account of her second Act aria which brings the house down. Yann Beuron is a cheeky Mercury, and Doris Lamprecht a virulent Juno. Vincent le Texier and Frank Leguinel cope well with their florid music even if neither really has the resonantly deep bass notes that their parts require. The choir, often arrayed in serried ranks and never allowed any distinct personality, sing with clarity and plenty of body when required. Mark Minowski keeps everything together with a practised and slyly humorous hand.
The main problem with this presentation lies in the staging. In the past I have complained about Laurent Pelly’s inability to take tragic baroque scores such as Handel’s Julius Caesar
with the degree of seriousness that the composer clearly intended. Here he exploits every comic potential, and the way in which the singers interact with each other often brings a smile to the face ... although very little laughter from the audience. He also makes a big feature of the lengthy scene with La Folie — indeed, the longest single scene in the opera — which Rameau himself interpolated into the original libretto. The singer is brought forward onto an apron stage in order to allow her to interact closely with Minkowski in the pit. The results work well on video although I wonder how much of the visual byplay would have come across to the live audience. Unfortunately Pelly then over-eggs the pudding by staging the following entr’acte with a mute frog who climbs down from an audience box into the orchestra pit, interfering with the players and even seizing the conductor’s baton. One display of this kind would have been enough. The moments of reflection and more serious emotion are simply brushed over.
The sets by Chantal Thomas begin the Prologue in a very modern-looking theatre with steeply ramped seating, which also acts as the setting throughout Act One. During the later two Acts this is progressively dismantled until the stage for Act Three looks more like a building site. The result is that the space for the dancers – as always a major element in Rameau’s dramatic scheme – is at first severely limited. The choreography by Laura Scozzi begins with a series of not very well co-ordinated Busby Berkeley routines and a dance for the denizens of the marsh which all too predictably includes a game of leap-frog. The gradual disappearance of the set allows more room for the dancers, but the sense of humour so evident elsewhere in this staging is in rather short supply.
Pelly’s own costumes, the usual mix of ancient and modern, are even less prepossessing. Jove and Mercury appear like something out of 1930s Berlin cabaret with their spangled suits. La Folie and her accompanying dancers look more like refugees from a Parisian nightclub. Platea herself has unfortunate overtones of a 1940s drag act from some ENSA floorshow, and Citheron and Momus appear in 1950s lounge suits and ties. When he has to disguise himself as Eros in the final Act, Momus dons a pair of fake wings and strips down to a pair of highly unprepossessing underpants which seem to need constant adjustment. Again there is an element of repetitive redundancy when the three Graces — taken by male dancers, although Rameau’s music certainly seems to imply that they should be taken seriously — also appear in similar underwear; one of the few occasions which raises a laugh from the audience. The problem is that all of this is really pretty ugly to look at, and any sense of baroque elegance is far distant from this farcical treatment of the action. The cameras, closely and well directed by Don Kent, spare us none of this, although the splash at the end as Platea dives back into her pond with its freeze-frame is clearly an editing effect. One might note that the full score of the original opera as performed at Versailles has not survived, and there is some evidence that Rameau’s later performances were concluded more conventionally with a reprise of the final chorus. The startling final bars here set the seal on a musical performance which certainly seeks to present the work as something more originally conceived.
In the final analysis, there is much to be said for experiencing Platée
in a video presentation which engages the viewer and supplies the generally excellent subtitles in conjunction with the singers’ actions. This is the only choice in the current catalogues for those who wish to experience the opera in that manner. A performance with many of the same cast is also the only choice for a complete audio recording of the work, in a CD set issued in 2010 and a compendious box of Rameau operas from Minkowski, Gardiner, Christie and others (Warner Erato 0825646364879). Those who wish to hear the work for the sake of its music alone will probably gravitate towards the audio presentation; others will have to make do with this one. I don’t imagine we’ll get another one soon.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review (TDK release): Kirk McElhearn