Garsington Opera’s music and action provide vibrant integration for – a less episodic than usual – Platée

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Garsington Opera 2024 [1] – Jean-Philippe Rameau, Platée: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus, The English Concert / Paul Agnew (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 31.5.2024. (CR)

A scene from Garsington Opera’s Platée © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Director – Louisa Muller
Designer – Christopher Oram
Lighting – Malcolm Rippeth
Video designer – Matt and Rob Vale (Illuminos)
Movement director – Rebecca Howell
Chorus director – Jonathon Cole-Swinard

Platée – Samuel Boden
La Folie – Mireille Asselin
Thespis / Mercury – Robert Murray
Momus – Jonathan McGovern
Satyr / Chitheron – Henry Waddington
Jupiter – Ossian Huskinson
Thalie – Holly Brown
Clarine – Holly Teague
Amor – Victoria Songwei Li
Juno – Annabel Kennedy
Maenads – Audrey Tsang and Nancy Holt

Back in the day when royal weddings were done properly and less philistine patrons commissioned the greatest composers to provide extensive formal operatic entertainments for such occasions, Platée (1745) was a bold prospect. Even though Rameau didn’t begin composition on it with the intention that it would function as part of the wedding festivities of the Dauphin, last minute changes following the unavailability of one of the planned operas by another composer meant that this satire was improbably pressed into service.

Rather than comprising a serious, or obviously edifying, retelling of one of Jupiter’s love affairs, it sardonically recounts how he and Mercury attempt to cure Juno of her jealousy by having Jupiter pretend to fall in love with the vainglorious and unprepossessing marsh nymph, Platée (usually depicted as a frog), and be wed to her, proving to Juno how ridiculous her suspicions are. As the Dauphine was not known for her beauty, it was brave to take this scenario as the basis for a nuptial entertainment (especially as the nymph is written for a tenor in drag) but that seems to have incited little comment, still less acted as the cause for any strop by the bridal couple and withdrawing from royal duties and status, as happens today. Rather, it was the Dauphin’s father, Louis XV, and his court who were less than impressed with the unflattering presentation of the gods, usually taken in Baroque opera to be the allegorical representation of the royal court on earth. It surely wouldn’t have been difficult for audiences to draw connections between Jupiter’s philandering and that of Louis XV.

Louisa Muller’s energetic new production for Garsington Opera brings the narrative down from the heights of Mount Olympus and forwards from Classical Greece into our time, reinterpreting it as a contemporary trashy reality television show about the escapades of Jupiter’s romantic life, like a satire on such programmes as Love Island or Blind Date. Olympus TV’s series ‘Jupiter and Juno’ appears to go awry at the beginning of the opera when the long-suffering wife storms out, leaving a bemused production company to put together hurriedly a new programme. While Robert Murray’s lustrous, eloquent Thespis leads a brain-storming session fuelled by coffee (the sober modern alternative to the grape of Bacchus actually eulogised in the opera), Momus (a slyly agile Jonathan McGovern) and Thalie (attractively sung by Holly Brown) devise a new show in which another partner is chosen for Jupiter.

The resulting entertainment – much like the usual Saturday night fare of mainstream television channels – presents a lively spectacle of glitzy, colourful action around the indolently escapist environment of a swimming pool and cocktail bar. If the sequence sometimes seems inconsequential, that can be said to serve as a purposefully ironic comment upon contemporary reality television, the products of an age of mass cultural production and consumption that stand as the debased modern versions of the artistic inventions that the figures of Thespis, Momus, and Thalie represent. The production’s choreography artfully mimics the style of such entertainment across the succession of Rameau’s musical tableaux with its dances and interludes, more or less solving the problem that such formal episodes otherwise delay or break up the dramatic trajectory. As an acerbic comedy about vanity and emotional irresponsibility within the context of human romantic relationships, the opera’s moral is sustained through this sequence with levity, in its replication of the superficial world often contrived and promoted by television programming today which offers an unrealistic or sentimental outlook in which relationships can thrive.

[front l-r] Platée (Samuel Boden), Chitheron (Henry Waddington) and Thespis / Mercury (Robert Murray) © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

The figure of Platée is cast not so much as a caricature, and certainly not in the form of a frog, but as simply somewhat misplaced in this artificially glamorous world – maybe trying too hard to catch attention around the pool with a low, green-sequined dress, and then oddly dowdy in appearance for the sham marriage. Sam Bowden captures some of the nymph’s more outlandish and gauche turns of expression, but his beautifully sustained, high tenor singing (rightly and skilfully avoiding falsetto) expertly draws sympathy for the character. Platée is the victim of nothing more than her own illusions and ambition, rather than of the meretricious world in which she finds herself. As such, the production ultimately downplays some of its own satirical intent by focusing the drama upon the personal tragedy of the nymph’s humiliation, and not extending to a conclusion the wider social and cultural satire with which it starts.

After an uncertain opening, Ossian Huskinson proves to be a suavely confident Jupiter, alongside Murray in his second part as Mercury, equally silver-tongued, and Henry Waddington’s dependable Chitheron, as they set about their mission. Mireille Asselin’s La Folie perpetuates the festivities as a DJ and compère in this re-imagining, conspicuous for her ebullient stage and vocal presence, as also is Victoria Songwei Li as Amor, between them the two guiding lights of this episode of ‘Jupiter and Platée’. Annabel Kennedy is a forthright, fearsome Juno.

Paul Agnew, conducting, has as much experience of this opera as anybody, having both sung the title role and conducted it before. The English Concert are less practised in the French Baroque repertoire and perhaps are a little stiffer than such ensembles as Les Arts Florissants. But Agnew certainly draws from them an ideally lucid texture and instils close attention to detail in timbre and sonority to depict the drama in music; pregnant pauses between the fidgety opening gestures of the Overture raise expectations. Music and action provide a vibrant integration of what can be a frustratingly episodic structure in the original work.

Curtis Rogers

Leave a Comment