Beekman and Crossley-Mercer (Jupiter) in Carsen's Platée staging in Paris
© Pascal Victor 2014
This year, France is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Philippe Rameau, an event marked at the Opéra Comique with a new production by Robert Carsen of Platée (seen Mar. 27), which was presented here and in Vienna before traveling to New York. The show was to have been conducted by William Christie, but the great maestro of Early Music is currently convalescing, and his place was taken by tenor Paul Agnew, who has a close relationship with Les Arts Florissants and has sung the title role of Platée. Singers who turn their hand to conducting are not always successful, but Agnew's reading of the comédie lyrique had a joyous attack quite equal to that of Christie, and one of the chief pleasures of the evening was the impeccable playing of Les Arts Florissants and the singing of the chorus — a worthy celebration of the French Baroque.
Platée, a rare comedy in Rameau's output, was given its premiere in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of Louis XV's son to the infanta of Spain. The plot is a satire about an ugly swamp nymph who believes that all men adore her. She is tricked by a cruel ruse into believing Jupiter is in love with her — a device to calm the jealousy of the god's wife, who bursts out laughing when she sees the proposed bride. This was a daring subject, as apparently the infanta was not the prettiest girl in the class.
"Formons un spectacle nouveau" (Let's make a new show), the chorus sings in the prologue, and Carsen and his team did just that. There was no sign of naturalistic pond life, but an evening set against the superficiality of Paris Fashion Week, with glitzy costumes and modish venues from Gideon Davey. Rameau's work satirized court society; here, it was interpreted as an indictment of today's image-obsessed society, with the vain fashion victim Platée eager to break into the world of the beautiful people. While it is legitimate to laugh at a tenor dressed as a female frog, it is considerably crueler to laugh at the clumsy floundering of an unglamorous transsexual, who commits suicide on cupid's arrow at the end of the evening. The audience immediately identified with this media world of cell phones and Chanel goody-bags and rocked with laughter as Jupiter entered dressed as Karl Lagerfeld, cradling one of France's most pampered feline friends, Choupette. Fashion parades with sexy modern choreography from Nicolas Paul ensued, while Platée was massaged and pummeled into condition for her marriage. Tenor Marcel Beekman gave a performance of touching dramatic virtuosity, grimacing like Lucille Ball on an accident-prone trip to a fashion show. Vocally, he sometimes resorted to campy screeches and hoots, which did not disguise the fact that he is not the haute contre the role demands but a centrally placed tenor with a strong upper extension.
The only disappointment of the evening came from Simone Kermes as La Folie; although her diva appearance as Lady Gaga cum Madonna, complete with microphone, had dramatic punch, too much unmusical characterization crept into her singing. Her impressive altissimo rang out forcefully at the expense of clear French and a stylish line. Otherwise this was an evening of great singing; baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang the ponytail off Karl Lagerfeld, while baritone Marc Mauillon and angelic haute contre Cyril Auvity plotted and connived stylishly as Cithéron and Mercure, and soprano Emmanuelle de Negri was pertly seductive as Amour.
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