Rameau - Platée

Opéra Comique, Paris, Monday March 24 2014

Conductor: Paul Agnew. Production: Robert Carsen. Choreography: Nicolas Paul. Sets and costumes: Gideon Davey. Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet. Platée: Marcel Beekman. La Folie: Simone Kermes. Thalie: Virginie Thomas. Mercure, Thespis: Cyril Auvity. Clarine, Amour: Emmanuelle de Negri. Jupiter: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Momus: João Fernandes. Cithéron, Momus in Prologue: Marc Mauillon. Junon: Emilie Renard. Chorus and orchestra: Les Arts Florissants.

Platée is one of a handful of works I like so much I can listen through at any time with pleasure, so I can’t say I was actually disappointed to see it on the Opéra Comique’s 2013-2014 schedule. But as the Paris Opera’s own production is excellent and has become a repertoire staple, and as staged Rameau remains a relative rarity even in France, I thought it was a shame we couldn’t have something different and wondered how Carsen’s take would measure up to Laurent Pelly’s benchmark, especially as I have quite often found Carsen’s work too coolly chic (all straitjacketed up in New Look tailoring and tight French pleats) for me.

It turned out I needn’t have worried: the new production is glittering in every sense. And as this is said to be the start of a “Rameau year”, we are supposed (so I read) to get more of his works as the months go by. I’ll believe that when I see it, however: there isn’t a single one in the Paris Opera’s next season, for a start.

Carsen sets Platée, a comedy in which the “ridiculous” heroine is cruelly deceived and mocked, in the cruelly deceptive, mocking world of fashion, centred mainly, though not exclusively, on Chanel. The staging opens and closes with a dazzling tinsel curtain and the basic setting is the same throughout: mirror-gloss black floor, mirrored walls with neoclassical round-arched details, facetted crystal wall lights.

After a kind of trendy dressing-up party during the prologue, in which the on-stage gaiety is for once infectious, a glitzy restaurant and bar, with round tables and Perspex, Ritz-style café chairs, is invaded by a cellphone-crazy crowd of brightly variegated fashion victims - just like the Hotel Costes during fashion week. Mercure, in a check suit and floppy hair, displaces customers (like a directeur de salle at the Hôtel Costes) to make way at the best table for a sleek, chic and slender Diana Vreeland* figure. She too is glued to her cellphone until disturbed by Platée, who to judge from her bathrobe, turban, slippers and green face-mask, is having a spa treatment at the hotel.

In act two, the same darkly gleaming room and spindly chairs are laid out for a fashion show, with name tags on the seats and, at the rear, the famous rue Cambon staircase. Press photographers flock in and cameras flash for Jupiter’s stunning appearance on the steps: Karl Lagerfeld, complete with white cat. La Folie, first in a scrunched-up silver balloon dress, later in plain green, in mirrored polka-dots (I've lost track of the precise order) and later still in pseudo-period panniers with fuchsia-pink stockings, is, so I’m told, supposed to be Lady Gaga. Jove’s metamorphoses and the ballets (mostly of the abrupt, apoplectic contortionist kind, with one very striking slow-motion exception) are cleverly dealt with as the fashion parade itself, culminating, at “Hymène, Hymène”, with the bridal gown, short but with an endless train. Platée declares it “Hé, bon, bon, bon” and dons it while goodies are distributed in white Chanel bags with the interlocking Cs changed to Js.

In act three, the glossy black space is now a magnificent bedroom with black-and-silver commodes, huge white bouquets and an elaborate silver finial over the gigantic bed. It was at this stage that I wondered if Carsen and his team were referring wryly/slyly to the famous production of Atys also staged at the Salle Favart with Les Arts Florissants. My imagination, probably. Junon turns out (you do wonder, after all, who Karl Lagerfeld’s wife can possibly be) to be Coco Chanel in person. The ballets and chorus descend into a kind of slow-moving, champagne-fuelled orgy until the cruel dénouement. After a brief tussle on the floor with Cithéron, Platée, alone in bra and pants on the now-empty stage, takes one of Cupid’s arrows, stabs herself and, surrounded by tinsel, slumps to the floor.

Freed of the usual New Look trappings I mentioned above, this production was less chilly, less tight-arsed than some of Carsen’s. Hiding the chorus usually strikes me as a directorial cop-out but here he at least didn’t do it all the time. I suppose you might say slipping into a slow-moving, champagne-fuelled orgy was a sign of flagging inspiration; but it can’t be easy dealing, in act three, with the deliberate putting-off of Juno’s final entry – Platée herself loses patience – and the overall effect was fun, highly professional and suitably glossy.

Musically, as it was all so very satisfactory there isn’t a lot to say. The cast made a great comic team, and in a comic work the voices don’t necessarily have to be perfect: it’s often character that counts. This worked for Marcel Beekman, whose voice in other roles might sound harsh but whose comic acting was perfect. It also worked in Simone Kermes’ favour. The impression I got was that the vast range of vocal colour and dynamics some critics praise her for is, at least partially, an accident – she doesn’t really seem to be in control but rather at the mercy of the caprices of her voice. But, while her French is decidedly strange, the crooning pianissimi she goes in for are actually audible in a house the size of Favart, her tuning is not as dodgy as the critics have said (I think it’s probably when she sings almost "agressively" without vibrato that it sounds off), and her top notes are spot on. I’ve no idea if her wild gesticulations made her a convincing Lady Gaga (whom I’ve never seen) but she undeniably threw herself into them, yet without, as my neighbour said he’d feared she might, trying to hog the limelight.

Edwin Crossley-Mercer and Marc Mauillon were especially good and I was surprised the former didn’t get a louder outburst of applause – but he didn’t seek it either, taking a very brief bow. The chorus was perfect as usual. The orchestra, with the “boss” off sick, seemed to me a demi-point less disciplined than usual, but their usual standards are very high, after all, and this was definitely the familiar, fleet-footed Arts Florissants style.

While less subtle and original than in Pelly's production, overall this was nevertheless an evening of first-rate entertainment. Let’s hope we’ll have a record of it on video.

*Oops, showing my age: Anna Wintour.


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