Review by David Gregson
In a lifetime spanning 67 years, I have seen only two live performances of operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau. One of them was of Platée – and so was the other. The first Platée was a zany and colorful concoction offered by the Mark Morris Dance Group in Segerstrom Hall in Orange County (September 28 & 29, 2001), and the other was this summer’s Santa Fe Opera production reviewed here. The Morris show featured costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, scenery by Adrianne Lobel, and the San Francisco Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan.
Both productions, by the way, starred the same frog — French tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the absurdly delusional Platée of the opera’s title. This pathetically unattractive amphibian is vain enough to imagine that Jupiter, the ruler of Olympus itself (basso Wilbur Pauley in this production), wishes to become her lover and husband. Alas, the Thunderer only wishes to tease his eternally jealous wife, Juno (apprentice mezzo-soprano, Arian Chris). The plot itself is cooked up by Cithéron (David Pittsinger), a mountain king.
The opera’s prologue is one of those antique conceits involving gods, demigods and various mythic personifications. Thespis (tenor Norman Reinhardt), honored today as “the first actor” in ancient Greek drama, gets together with Thalie, the muse of comedy (soprano Heidi Stober) and Momus, the god of satire (baritone Joshua Hopkins), to stage a drama celebrating Jupiter’s infamous froggy frolic.
Who knows why they want to do this – but in Rameau’s time, Louis XV and his court were hanging out at Versailles just craving for a l-o-n-g entertainment full of song and dance. We are assured that they were, in fact, usually a rather serious lot; Platée is a sort of comic exception to the general rule, and the drag heroine a real rarity. In any event, there’s so much dance in Platée that opéra-ballet would seem to be the proper name for such a show. Grove gives it as a comédie lyrique first performed at Versailles in 1745.
Sometime before I die, I would like to see one of these Versailles entertainments given an historically correct treatment. But, we live in astounding times, do we not? The Santa Fe orchestra gorgeously responding to early music specialist, Harry Bicket, was as historically correct as possible (and if it were not the proper period performance — mon Dieu! — would the critics ever howl), but as for the production staging itself – well, anything goes!
It was all shtick, glorious shtick. Endless shtick. Shtick for hours. Is this the influence of Jerry Lewis on the French? There was so much crazy stuff going on, some of it unpardonably and pointlessly vulgar, that I wonder how the participants could remember it all. And the wonderful dancers worked especially hard. Bottles of oxygen had to be strategically placed in the wings so they wouldn’t pass out from hyperactivity at 7000 feet. Italian choreographer Laura Scozzi seemed determined to kill them all. Much or most of the movement was thoroughly manic (including some terrific break dancing). Compared to Scozzi’s stuff, Mark Morris’s Platee dances might have been designed by Petipa for Les Sylphides.
Well, what would one really expect from an opera that takes place in a swamp full of nymphs and frogs?
The singing was uniformly excellent, although Fouchécourt seemed to tire as the evening wore on, and at times he was even hard to hear. Pittsinger made a most imposing mountain king. Reinhardt, so overtaxed as Ferrando in Così fan tutte, was delightful to watch and a pleasure to hear as he did double duty in the roles of Thespis and the god, Mercury. And one could hardly ignore soprano Stober, first as Thalie, and then as the scene (and opera stealing) character of Folly, dressed in a gown made of music paper and endlessly carrying on about nothing in a parody of coloratura sopranos. All in glittery purple, Pauley’s Jupiter was an amusing presence – one preceded by an elaborate descent to earth in a burst of silver fireworks. Hopkins was excellent as Momus, and apprentice soprano Leena Chopra made a striking bit of cheesecake as Love.
The most memorable part of the evening came at the very beginning whilst Rameau’s lengthy opening niceties were underway. The stage picture was one of a steeply raked theater auditorium in which patrons were being seated by flashlight bearing ushers. And then they were reseated. And then reseated some more. And then some some. And after a protracted period of chaos in which patrons crawled on the floor and through the seats and aisles and then clambered over one another, they all ended up forming a neat little square that took up about a quarter of the on-stage hall.
The audience laughed and the evening was fun – but there are certainly going to be those who found the whole thing impossibly undignified. My one regret is there is no comic relief from the comic relief in this opera – and I think Mark Morris garnered greater sympathy for that sad old frog.
Music by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Text by Adrien Le Valois d’Orville
Sung in French
July 28; August 1, 10, 16, 22
Conductor Harry Bicket
Director Laurent Pelly
Scenic Designer Caroline Ginet after Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer Laurent Pelly
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler
Choreographer Laura Scozzi
Platée, an unattractive swamp-nymph Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Jupiter, ruler of the gods Wilbur Pauley
Cithéron, king of Mount Cithéron David Pittsinger
Mercury, the messenger god Norman Reinhardt
Thespis, inventor of Greek drama Norman Reinhardt
Folly, personification of pride and vanity Heidi Stober
Thalia, muse of comedy Heidi Stober
Juno, wife of Jupiter, queen of the gods Ariana Chris
L’amour, god of love Leena Chopra
Clarine, Platée’s confidante Leena Chopra
Momus, god of mockery Joshua Hopkins