Semperoper’s Excellent Production of Platée is a Controlled Riot with Vigour and Style

20/04/2019

Rameau, Platée: Soloists, Dancers, Sächsische Staatsopernchor Dresden (chorus director: Cornelius Volke), Säschsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Paul Agnew (conductor). Semperoper, Dresden, 16.4.2019. (MB)

Semperoper’s Platée (c) Ludwig Olah

Production:

Director – Rolando Villazón
Set designs – Harald Tor
Costumes – Susanne Hubrich
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Lighting – Davy Cunningham
Dramaturgy – Kai Weßler

Cast:

Platée – Philippe Talbot
Cithéron, Satyr – Giorgio Caoduro
Jupiter – Andreas Wolf
Junon – Ute Selbig
Mercure, Thespis – Mark Milhofer
Momus – Sebastian Wartig
Thalie, Clarine – Iulia Maria Dan
La Folie – Inga Klana
Amour – Tania Lorenzo
Two Menads – Katharina Flade, Hyunduk Na

I did not ever think I should live to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden play Rameau, let alone with such verve and sensitivity, such vigour and style as here. Outside France, occasions are still relatively rare to see Rameau’s operas staged: far rarer than they should be for the pre-eminent opera composer of his age. In the present climate, to hear them performed on modern instruments – let alone on modern instruments that are not attempting, pointlessly, to sound as if they were ancient ones – is a further, well-nigh insurmountable challenge. Bravo, then, not only to Dresden’s Semperoper for staging Platée, but for presenting it with such conviction, under Paul Agnew, himself by now something of a veteran, both in the title role and as conductor.

Agnew’s direction proved not the least virtue of this evening, his tempi judicious both in themselves and in relation to one another, a keen ear applied to balances within the orchestra and between orchestra and stage. Rameau’s woodwind solos in particular shone with all the ravishing beauty one might have hoped for from these players. Warm yet incisive strings combined with expert continuo (Gerd Amelung on harpsichord, Simon Kalbhenn on cello) and, just as important, a fine cast and duly provocative production to have one think as well as feel. This was the fourth performance in the run since the premiere earlier this month: it seemed by now to have all the advantages of having ‘bedded in’, without retreat into the over-familiarity (and under-rehearsal) of ‘repertoire’.

Rolando Villazón’s production surprised me. Initially it seemed needlessly over the top, in danger of collapsing into ‘punk Baroque’ cliché, but it soon became apparent that a keen, playful mind was at work, playing with the strange, ornate parodies of this singular ballet bouffon (or should that be comédie lyrique)? The Prologue takes place, with apparent incongruity, in a bar full of characters who either are schoolchildren or, more likely, dressed as such. (Or is it a drunken schoolroom? There may be no difference.) This is, after all, the morning after the night before – something surely not lost on the first audience at the Dauphin’s Versailles marriage festivities in 1745. (The 1749 version was given here.) What ‘should’ be a Greek vineyard is – more or less – but with the additional insight, criticism, call it what you will, that the gang of Thespis, Momus, Amour, and Thalia are themselves acting as obstreperous teenagers. Their creation of the drama to be set before us for their and our amusement has little empathy, will mock gods and mortals alike, yet ultimately will serve the higher, comedic end of reconciling Jupiter and Junon.

And so, the events at the foot of Mount Cithaeron unfold, keenly aware of the highly unusual form this satire is to take. Who are its objects? In a sense, everyone: perhaps including Rameau, the great lyric tragedian, himself. And nothing is off bounds, sexually or otherwise. Some members of the audience seemed more than a little discomfited by Mercure’s use of an obvious bodily orifice for storage purposes, but that was surely the point. Here one should be invited, even compelled, to reconsider what might be taken for granted, not only about this opera, but about opera more generally. Mark Milhofer’s twin assumption of Mercure and Thespis was certainly not the least of the quicksilver joys and thrills of the evening. But it was Philippe Talbot’s Platée, of course, who stood – and sang – centre-stage, gloriously repulsive in what must surely be one of Rameau’s higher haute-contre parts, originally taken by Pierre de Jélyotte. Talbot captured the swamp-nymph en travestie’s absurdity – we feel less uncomfortable, perhaps, given the Italian device of drag, highly unusual for French opera – in a keenly observed performance whose every detail contributed to the greater whole.

Another delightful incongruity was provided by Inga Kalna’s Folie, her apparition again very much a star apparition from another world (Italian opera, once again, but something beyond that in the particular scheme at work here). Her coloratura thrilled yet also warned. Why should we listen to her, apart from wanting to do so? Perhaps that was enough. Other highlights included the performances of a darkly menacing, yet not-too-menacing, Giorgio Caoduro (Cithéron), a properly narcissistic Jupiter (Andreas Wolf), and a rich-toned Iulia Maria Dan (Thalie, Clarine). But the company and the controlled riot in performance it wrought were the thing. Opera, of whatever genre, is a curious thing. This Platée not only knew that; it played with that, rejoiced in it, and asked us what we thought of it, and why. Its strangely ‘un-operatic’ interjections, verbal and musical, were both relished and reconciled, its conventions likewise. The more one listened, the more one watched, the more – and the less – one ‘understood’. Dance and song, voice and instruments, even comedy and tragedy: can they, should they, be separated? Such, after all, may be one of the ultimate lessons learned in and after the drunken schoolroom and/or children’s bar of the Prologue.

Mark Berry

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