Garsington Opera’s 2024 season begins with a production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Platée. We interviewed its director.
An undoubted highlight of the 2024 Summer Festival Opera season will be Garsington Opera’s first ever production of Rameau’s comic opera Platée. Directed by Louisa Muller, whose The Turn of the Screw at Garsington was a huge critical and audience success, it’s cast from singers very familiar to regulars at this special place, including Samuel Boden in the title role, and Robert Murray and Jonathan McGovern as Thespis/Mercure and Momus respectively. The musical direction is in the experienced hands of Paul Agnew, directing The English Concert. We interviewed the director as she prepares for the premiere.
You previously directed The Turn of the Screw with great success at Garsington. What makes Garsington a place to which you want to return?
My first experience at Garsington was so joyful and rewarding that it ensured my unending loyalty to the company. The beauty of the setting is unparalleled, of course, but beyond that there is a real collaborative spirit and a focus on solutions rather than problems that add up to an immensely satisfying creative process. The artistic standard is very high, yet they’ve still managed to prioritize a supportive and warm working environment – it’s hard to imagine a better place to work. This year I’m particularly excited to collaborate with The English Concert for the first time.
The problems posed by staging the Britten seem to pale into insignificance when it comes to considering Platée. Is it so little known that you have to take a new approach?
I try to look at every score I approach with fresh eyes, and it’s even easier to do that with a piece that’s so rarely done. I’ve never seen a production of Platée – it hadn’t come up beforehand, and once I’m preparing a piece I never watch other productions of it – so I’ve come to the piece without any baggage and have had the best time diving into it to see what’s there and how it resonates with me. When I directed The Turn of the Screw, it seemed like every audience member I met could easily call up half a dozen other productions they’d seen, which comes with its own sort of pressure, so it’s enormously freeing to know we’ll be introducing much of the audience to the piece.
So far the biggest challenge for me with Platée is the massive amount of dance music. I’m very lucky to be collaborating with choreographer Rebecca Howell for the first time, and we are both fully committed to making sure the dances enhance the narrative rather than interrupting or distracting from it.
Does the nature of the house at Garsington mean that you are restricted in what you can do?
There is a real intimacy at Garsington. Despite the very wide stage, there is no proscenium separating the audience from the performers, and because Act I plays in daylight and the theatre is encased in transparent walls, nothing is hidden – we are reminded from the start that we are all in the room together. Of course those same elements present a special challenge to direct the audience’s eyes within a wide open field of vision – the lighting can’t do it for me. There is a beautiful natural progression throughout the evening as the light outside fades, the onstage lighting becomes more theatrical, and we are increasingly drawn into the action. When we made The Turn of the Screw there, I had the feeling that the Garsington experience made the audience feel more complicit in the tragedy of the piece (we were part of the ‘us’ in the Governess’ “What have we done, between us?”), and that’s certainly what we are aiming for in Platée as well.
Platée is one of Rameau’s great works but it is seldom performed here. How do we convince a 21st century audience that it is a must-see?
Whenever I tell anyone I’m directing Platée, they either don’t know it at all or they’re completely in love with it (I’m certainly in the latter camp). It is such a compelling and delightful work, and I’d say its rarity has more to do with its specific stylistic requirements and the challenge of putting it on than it does with any adverse audience reactions. I think audiences that are more accustomed to Italian baroque than French will be intrigued by the complexity and colors of Rameau’s harmonic language and orchestration, as well as the ways he played with form – I directed two Handel operas last year, and this feels like an entirely different beast.
Pinchgut Opera (Australia) did a very ‘kooky’ version. Are you thinking along these lines?
I’ve actually just directed Rinaldo at Pinchgut, but I haven’t seen their production of Platée. I will say, though, there’s a certain amount of ‘kookiness’ baked into the score. I have an allergy to quite a lot of ‘comic’ operas, which too often feel inauthentic and unfunny, but Platée has so many truly surprising and funny moments.
It’s also quite a fun opportunity for a director because the libretto is so non-prescriptive of both setting and action. The piece is set in a world of gods and muses and nymphs, so it requires us to build a world for it, and while it does have a strong narrative, it also leaves lots of room for us to determine the storytelling (did I mention there’s a lot of dance music?). We’ve chosen a setting that feels absolutely true to the story and the tone of the original while grounding it very clearly in a contemporary world of flawed humans.
Is it possible to feel sympathy for Platée?
It’s not only possible, it’s crucial. She is without a doubt the protagonist of the piece, and despite her inflated sense of herself, she is the only character with sincere motives in a world where love and sincerity are only feigned. The genius of the piece is that Platée does win our hearts as we spend the entire evening laughing at her and delighting in the joke of it all, and it is only at the end that we realize she was in fact the tragic hero all along and we’ve been rejoicing in her downfall.
Is there a deeper message, about human frailty/arrogance?
Yes, absolutely, if we get it right it should be a delightful evening in the theatre that also makes us think. For me the message that resonates most deeply is how easily we can forget others’ humanity and underestimate our power to harm. This idea feels omnipresent now, when so many of our interactions happen behind screens and avatars, with that dangerous blend of anonymity and false familiarity. The way the line between performance and reality is blurred for Platée was the jumping off point for the way we’ve conceived the show, and it’s been a really interesting vein to mine.
Illuminos are doing the videos. How are these incorporated into the production?
Rob Vale from Illuminos is a welcome addition to the team. Video and lighting always come together late in the process of building a production, so it’s still very much in development, but I can say that we plan to use video as a natural extension of the visual world we’re creating onstage and as a tool to bring us into a contemporary context.
You’ve worked with Christopher Oram on The Turn of the Screw. That was a very striking design based on vast areas of glass. Does Platée lend itself to something similarly spectacular?
This will be our third show together, after The Turn of the Screw in 2019 and The Wreckers in 2022 for Houston Grand Opera, and we are very lucky to have Malcolm Rippeth back with us lighting the show. The set will look very different to the glass house we made for Screw, but we’ve again approached it as a kind of site-specific installation, taking great care with how it sits in the context at Garsington. Christopher has designed a colorful, playful, stylish space with lots of opportunities for surprise – this is a fun one.
On a more personal note, what made you base yourself in Vienna? Apart of course from the wonderful opera houses and the coffee…
My husband’s job (as a repetiteur at the Wiener Staatsoper) took us to Vienna, and the quality of life has kept us there. It’s been a wonderful place to live and raise our 6 year old daughter. We’ve been there almost 9 years, and I’m still not tired of Schnitzel.
What’s next for you after Platée?
Directly after Platée opens, I head across the pond to direct a new La traviata to open the Santa Fe Opera season, also with Christopher. It’s going to be a whirlwind few months. In many ways La traviata feels like a big shift from Platée, but it’s always interesting to discover how pieces that I’m working on simultaneously end up speaking to one another – currently Violetta and Platée are getting along famously inside my brain.
• Platée begins at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, on 29 May 2024, with further performances on 31 May and 6, 8, 10, 22, 30 June.
• Full details of Garsington Opera’s 2024 season can be found here.