Cher Public

Platée du jour

What must have raced through the mind of the none-too-comely Spanish Infanta when she learned that the opera to be performed during the celebrations for her 1745 wedding to the French Dauphin revolved around the comeuppance of an ugly yet vain water nymph tricked into believing Jupiter was her ardent suitor? I suspect the poor Infanta, who died a year later after childbirth at just 20 years old, was not amused. But, as part of Rameau 2014—a worldwide commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death—the celebrated French group Les Arts Florissants brought its surprisingly full-bore version of this sui generis comédie-lyrique–Platée ou Junon Jalouse–to Alice Tully Hall Wednesday evening for us to judge for ourselves.  

One of the most inventive and challenging composers of the 18th century, Jean-Philippe Rameau, a noted organist and musical theorist, came late to writing for the lyric stage—his first opera, the towering masterpiece Hippolyte et Aricie, arrived only just before his 50th birthday. Over the next 30 (!) years, he exceled in all of the genres of the day: tragédie en musique, opera-ballet, pastorale-héroïque, acte de ballet and comédie-lyrique, of which he wrote only two: Les Paladins and Platée. The latter is a particularly odd duck: an often mean-spirited farce—its anti-heroine portrayed by a male haut-contre—and quite unlike anything ever seen on any opera stage by this time.

For those whose experience with baroque opera consists of Italian opera seria, French opera of the same era may prove a great shock: instead of a stream of da capo arias joined by yards of recitativo secco sung by a half-dozen soloists, there are instead many singers, a chorus, dancers and suites of dances and recitatives that flow more fluidly in and out of the less elaborate arias and duets. If this repertoire weren’t so extraordinarily difficult (and expensive) to perform, one could imagine Rameau becoming as popular as Handel.

Les Arts Florissants and its founder and musical director William Christie have been schooling New Yorkers in French baroque music for over 25 years. Wednesday’s Platée was the eighth Rameau opera the group has brought here, mostly in concert form beginning with Castor et Pollux and Les Indes Galantes in 1993, although Hippolyte and the composer’s final masterpiece Les Boréades were staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music which presumably spent all of its opera money this year on the Glyndebourne Festival production of Britten’s Billy Budd in February. BAM thus chose not to import the Robert Carsen production of Platée, leaving Lincoln Center to pick up the gauntlet and bring over the large Les Arts Florissants forces: nine soloists, a chorus of 24 and an orchestra of 36 for a semi-staged presentation of the Rameau clearly based on the Carsen which ended its run in Paris on Sunday.

The chorus lined up at the back of the stage behind the orchestra; in front of the players, the singers, most in concert dress, interacted (without scores) as if they were on an opera stage. To add to the dramatic frisson of the evening, as Platée, Dutch tenor Marcel Beekman towered over the rest of the cast in full female make-up and upswept hair-do wearing the flattering orange chiffon frock and silver pumps from the Carsen production. It was this get-up—and Beekman’s interpretation of the title role—that occasioned my greatest reservations about the evening.

Whereas Platée is usually done up as a hideous semi-aquatic creature, here we had instead a bawdy BBW, tall and graceless but hardly the outrageous grotesque required for her part in the cruel plot cooked up by Cithéron and Mercure to cure the rampaging Junon of her implacable jealousy of Jupiter. Beekman jumped eagerly into this interpretation of Platée as an awkward vulgarian; his singing for the most part sadly lacked the finesse and elegance of many of the finest Platées: Gilles Ragon (heroine of the fine Minkowski recording), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (the delicious nymph of Mark Morris’s widely seen production, an interpretation tragically never recorded for CD or DVD) or the first post-war Platée, the indelible Michel Sénéchal, whose blissful portrayal remains essential despite his EMI recording from the 1956 Aix-en-Provence Festival being out-of-print. (But it is available here complete.)

More often than not, Beekman blasted his way through the nymph’s ingenious music missing an entrancing delicacy which can form a wonderful contrast to the character’s galumphing demeanor. Occasionally he deigned to sing more sweetly and at less than forte, and the results were salutatory, but the yelps and groans that might have made sense in the stage production seemed excessive in this more intimate presentation.

This overkill was more surprising when one noted that one of the finest exemplars of the title role was on the podium—Paul Agnew, now one of the assistant conductors of Les Arts Florissants, had taken over the production during rehearsals in Vienna when Christie was sidelined to undergo preventative surgery. (Christie looking relaxed and fit introduced the evening and watched the performance from the front box.) Agnew, long one of the best French baroque tenors and an often sweetly endearing Platée in the DVD of Laurent Pelly’s famed production, has been winding down his singing career and devoting more time to conducting.

It might be his relative inexperience in leading performances of this repertoire that accounted for a lack of nuance in both the orchestral playing and the choral singing—a rare occurrence in a Les Arts Florissants performance. His interpretation was oddly humorless and lacking the flexibility and quicksilver play of light and dark that I recall from so many Christie-Rameau performances. One found oneself listening to the marvelous orchestra’s effortless virtuosity rather than to Rameau, although it would occasionally all come together as in the final act’s towering chaconne. However, choosing to take the work’s final shocking three chords quietly was a curious miscalculation.

The supporting cast was hugely satisfying with Marc Mauillon as the dithering, plotting Cithéron a particular standout, as was the witty Mercure and Thespis of Cyril Auvity who has sung these roles in so many productions of Platée that I couldn’t help thinking: “Why isn’t he singing the title role?” A shining Emmanuelle de Negri commanded the stage as L’Amour and Clarine while Anderson Cooper-lookalike Edwin Crossley-Mercer (a French bass, despite the very English name) was a sonorous and dourly conspiratorial Jupiter.

However, an alien from another planet altogether landed onstage during the second act—German soprano Simone Kermes as a La Folie so weird, so unpredictable that one was unabashedly riveted. This notoriously willful singer was not the first choice for the role – young Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen withdrew about a year ago – and many predicted an inevitable clash between Kermes and Christie, but perhaps Agnew was more indulgent and she did sing all thirteen performances in Vienna, Paris and New York.

Yes, La Folie’s interjections are over-the-top but unfortunately none of Kermes’s self-indulgent mannerisms disappeared in the new territory of French baroque—all the cooing and scooping and straight-tone that one knows and loathes were on display. Occasionally she pulled back and sang cleanly and in understandable French but then moments later it was mush again. It devolved into a most dispiriting diva appearance in an otherwise unified performance, and one couldn’t help yearning for more idiomatic and spectacular La Folies like the incomparable Mireille Delunsch, Annick Massis, and the star of my very first Platée—Renée Fleming, who was dazzling in a 1988 production by John Pascoe and Moses Pendleton at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In addition to stagings and concerts of rare Rameau works, not surprisingly this Rameau year has brought several new recordings, two of which feature young French soprano Sabine Devieilhe who has been attracting a lot of attention lately, particularly since her recent triumph in the title role of Delibes’s Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique. Her debut solo CD Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour on Erato is both an attractive introduction to the soprano (who impresses here more with the tender lyricism of her voice than her coloratura technique or high notes) and a welcome sampler of excerpts from 13 Rameau operas.

This collection brings to mind a similarly excellent Rameau miscellany Règne Amour by English soprano Carolyn Sampson, but happily there is little overlap between the two programs.

Erato has pulled out all the stops providing Devieilhe with both the fine period-instrument orchestra Les Ambassadeurs and a chorus Le Jeune Choeur de Paris along with tenor Samuel Boden and baritone Aimery Lefèvre. The flutist and conductor Alexis Kossenko proves occasionally too reticent for this fiercely colorful and dramatic music but he supports his longtime collaborator Devieilhe well.

Looked to by many as the “new Dessay,” Devieilhe has considerable experience in 18th century music and her command of Rameau is confident and stylish. Some of the most impressive tracks are the quieter numbers like the sublime “Tristes apprêts” from Castor, although Alphise’s remarkable scene from Les Boréades “Un horizon serein” brings out the flamboyant best in both the soprano and her conductor.  Her spin on La Folie’s scena is accomplished but perhaps a bit lacking in individual flair.

Devieilhe also portrays a sparkling Venus in a new recording on Alpha by Ensemble Pygmalion of the second version of Dardanus from 1744.

Taken from live performances in 2012 in Versailles, this two CD set shows that Raphaël Pichon’s group is one of the more promising ensembles to have sprung up in France in recent years. The orchestral playing is vibrant and accomplished, but the singing is more uneven: while Gaëlle Arquez’s Iphise is lovely, Bernard Richter is challenged by the high tessitura of the title role, surprising after his outstanding performance as Lully’s Atys. Alain Buet seems to be an inevitable feature of many French baroque opera these days but his dry Teucer here is no asset. Despite its strengths, this recording fails to make a fully convincing case for Dardanus, always the most problematic of Rameau’s tragedies; perhaps it’s time for Christie to finally tackle it?

While Alpha’s recording is eminently valuable, Glossa’s Les Surprises de l’Amour is a grave disappointment.

This opéra-ballet consisting of three separate entrées reveals that Sébastien d’Hérin and his Les Nouveaux Caractères may not yet be ready for the exposure brought by an ambitious world premiere recording. Granted, Surprises may be one of Rameau’s weakest scores, but d’Hèrin’s forces still fail to do justice to it. Although Anders Dahlin excels in three tenor roles and soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul as Adonis dominates the first entrèe “L’Enlèvement d’Adonis,” the remainder of the cast comes up short.

Karine Deshayes reveals a lovely voice, but she doesn’t sound at home in this repertoire and the other two sopranos, Virginie Pochon and Caroline Mutel, are downright wretched, so painful that I would literally wince when either began to sing. Since they sing four roles, they prove a real blight on this ambitious but grandly flawed project; that this recording has received 5- and 4-star reviews on Amazon is baffling.

For those intrigued by the Les Arts Florissants Platée, culturebox will stream the March 27 performance of the Robert Carsen production from the Opéra-Comique beginning at 2:00 EDT on April 3. This invaluable service also has two other noteworthy Rameau performance currently available, a gorgeously conducted but indifferently sung Les Indes Galantes in a grim and darkly political production (with lots of nudity) from Bordeaux, as well as a concert of the modern premiere of  Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour ou Les Dieux d’Égypte from the Opéra Royal at Versailles.

I have been listening constantly to a later broadcast of this ravishing score and eagerly look forward to its modern stage premiere by Opera Lafayette this fall in Washington DC and New York. One hopes (probably in vain) that all the performances and recording projects occasioned by this Rameau year will not disappear after 2014.