Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Early Opera Company / Agnew @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

20 November 2014

Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker

Written to celebrate the marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France (son of Louis XV) to the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain, and first performed at the Grande Écurie, Versailles in 1745, Platée went down a storm at its premiere. It was so well received, in fact, that within months Rameau had been appointed Composer of the King’s Chamber Music.

The plot, based on the myth related by Greek writer Pausanias, sees Jupiter, Cithéron and Mercury conspire to play a trick on Juno to stop her constant jealousy. They plan to fool her into thinking that Jupiter is madly in love with another, before revealing at the last possible moment that the person in question is so obviously not a candidate for the god’s affections. With this, Juno will realise she has been set up and apologise for her paranoia, thus giving Jupiter even more opportunity to carry on with his womanising ways!

The only trouble is that they must find a suitably ridiculous candidate for the chief god to woo, and they strike upon Platée, an ugly water nymph who is under the illusion that every man she sees falls in love with her. If the plot sounds rather too silly, it actually acts as a superb forum to explore a range of human values and emotions, since it is only ostensibly about gods and nymphs.

So while, in terms of plot, very little actually happens in Act III, as we watch Platée growing increasingly excited at her impending union it is impossible not to share in her pain. As the deception is revealed, and the nymph is fobbed off with a cry of ‘Let us sing the praises of Platée and her charms’ from the chorus, it feels as if she has been treated like Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard whose few sweet words from Elsie Maynard cannot even start to heal the utter pain he is feeling. Even as Platée cries that she will have her revenge for the cruel and callous way in which the gods have treated her, this only increases our sympathy because we realise just how powerless she is to fulfil such a vow.

The character of Platée has many equivalents in opera, but the closest, perhaps surprisingly, might be Gloria the pig in HK Gruber’s 1990s cabaret opera Gloria – A Pig Tale. Both Platée and Gloria initially come across as self-centred and presumptuous, but it soon becomes apparent that any delusions they have derive from their vulnerability and a very basic human need to be loved.

Although the English and French Baroque were hardly synonymous, the interior of St John’s, Smith Square still felt like an appropriate setting for this concert performance from the Early Opera Company, conducted by Paul Agnew. The orchestra played brilliantly, and, complete with thunder sheet and ‘tombola’ wind machine, created the vast range of sounds that the score requires. These include the depiction of storms, clouds, donkeys and owls, since Jupiter disguises himself as the latter three when he first appears before Platée.

The singing and acting were superb. Halfway through Act I a heavy footfall was heard at the back of the church, with half of the audience clearly thinking this was a spectator who hadn’t learnt the art of exiting quietly! It turned out, however, to be the entrance of Platée with Thomas Walker donning long hair, beard, green dress and sparkly high-heeled shoes. Walker threw himself completely into the role, and coped admirably in meeting the requirements of a part written for a haute-contre, when not many singers today are primed in that style. In Act I it was sometimes obvious that he had to think hard about how to move his voice between different modes of sound to meet the role’s requirements, but his output was no less accomplished for that. After the interval, however, we saw none of the thought processes, and for much of the time it hardly even occurred to us just how high he was being asked to sing.

Although no-one else donned quite such elaborate costumes, all of the performances were highly animated. Mark Milhofer with his fine tenor voice gave a particularly expressive performance as Mercury, with large hand gestures that presented inverted commas or the Jerry Springer ‘talk to the hand’ pose. Martijn Cornet was a fine Cithéron, while, as Jupiter, Callum Thorpe demonstrated an exceptionally stunning bass-baritone voice (he plays Pluto in L’Orfeo at the Roundhouse next January). Emilie Rénard proved a splendid Juno, while as Love, Clarine and Folly, Emmanuelle de Negri revealed a beautiful soprano with impeccable control of her soaring phrases.

There were some nerves before the premiere of Platée because the Infanta was hardly a great beauty herself, and it was feared that offence would be taken. In the event, however, everyone laughed and I just wonder if this was because the Infanta, by virtue of her position, could psychologically only ever place herself amongst the gods. In this way, she could never see Platée as either herself or someone whose feelings she need ever stop to care about. We, however, did find ourselves taking the nymph’s side at every turn, and it was our ability to do so that made this so-called ballet bouffon or comédie lyrique in reality so deeply heart-wrenching.

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Early Opera Company / Agnew @ St John’s, Smith Square, London