A problem with scheduling an opera-intensive trip is that you don’t always hear and see the shows in optimum order. Ideally, a binge of opera should be programmed as carefully as a concert: something light to start, alternating demanding and less-demanding works, a big whopper of a show next to close, and then, you know, something encore-y to wind up.

Well, it doesn’t always work that way: for example, back in 2010 the “Regietournee” kicked off with, of all things, Calixto Bieito‘s Entfuhrung, more or less right off the plane, and then, nine days and seven operas later, the predictably dense production by Stefan Herheim of Lulu. Both of these I wish I could see again under less brain-fried conditions. But you see what you can see, and the order is determined by what’s on at what opera house in what city reachable by which train, and mostly you’re just happy if everything you want to see isn’t playing the same Tuesday night.

I am a little sorry, though, about how how the order worked out the last two nights. Ideally, I think, I should have seen Herheim’s Xerxes before Bieto’s Platée, instead of (as I did) trying to follow the revelatory with the merely excellent.

The difference between the two I am certain has little to do with levels of talent (how does one quantify genius?) or differential of quality of the works themselves. Rather it’s matter of aesthetic ambition, in combination perhaps with how well the pieces “speak” to the respective directors.

So let’s go chronological. Tuesday night in Stuttgart I saw at Platée what I think was the youngest mean-age audience I can recall, if you discount stuff like Hansel and Gretel, which all thinking people agree you probably should. I’m not talking, as you’d see in New York, people born since the Korean War when I say “young,” but rather mid 20s and even some later teens. (The show was recommended for 14 and up.) The reason they were there, I am confident, is that this production is entertaining and challenging, plus subversive in just the way people who haven’t quite settled their thinking yet prefer to see.

Platée is usually played strictly as campy comedy, which is presumably what Rameau and d’Orville had in mind. A major source of the humor is based on crossdressing; that is, the title character is a female nymph so unattractively unfeminine that she can only be portrayed by a man. In Bieito’s production, though, Platée is not a woman played by a man, but rather a man playing a woman; that is, a drag queen.

And she’s a mess, this one: hairy, thick-waisted, with muscular legs. In the role, tenor Thomas Walker makes a perfectly acceptable looking man, but he’s really not RuPaul material, not at all. The problem is, Platée doesn’t grasp her utter unfishiness: she thinks she’s just plain gorgeous. What’s worse, she’s crabby, entitled, whiny, jealous, backbiting, humorless… that sort of parody of the misogynist’s concept of woman the very worst drag queens tend to fall into unintentionally. (Understand, there are thousand and thousands of perfectly lovely and adorable and talented drag queens out there: it’s just that Platée isn’t one of them.)

She is such a mess, in fact, that she can’t get into the vaguely 1970s club Bieito sets the action in. As we arrive in the theater, there’s this tacky piece of polyester soft furniture (we used to call this sort of thing a “flip n’ fuck”) off in a stage right corner, with two men passed out on it. One of them, who we later will find out is Thespis, has fallen asleep with his pants down around his ankles; the other, marginally less rumpled, will come to as the music starts and scamped down into the pit: it’s conductor Hans Christoph Bünger.

So the regulars at this club, which is mostly empty black space punctuated by a giant mirror upstage reflecting the audience, get (or remain) high, sing about drinking, and welcome Bacchus, played by an obese woman naked but for a brief skirt of grape leaves. This is not the jolly Bacchus of myth but rather a Bacchus somewhat the worse for drink and fatigue: about all the energy she can summon goes into absent-mindedly swatting away the groping hands of her fellow partiers. (The chorus are dressed very like the sort of mixed crowd you see in photos of Studio 54, everything from business suits to fetish wear.) Eventually Thespis (Cyril Auvity) and the Satyre (André Morsch) set the plan in motion to prank Junon.

They first transform themselves into King Cithéron and the god Mercure by slapping on a little makeup (singing trills as they draw on beauty spots) and a couple of ratty white wigs. These two obviously have a history, and it’s delightful one: basically they are gay bros, and their relationship is clumsily and adorably sexual, escalating in seconds from slaps to tongues-out kisses. It’s a testament to Bieito’s celebrated boundary-challenging for his performers that these two singers are so incredibly physically comfortable with each other, and, beyond that, so ready to improvise broadly within boundaries established in rehearsals. They don’t act, they play, and it’s a constant delight just watching them having so much fun.

Not that this physical freedom comes at the cost of musical inaccuracy: the score is so inside these performers’ bodies (not just Morsch and Auvity, everyone) that it loses any sense of formality: this is just how these people talk.

So in comes Platée, and the shock is that when “she” arrives, it’s Walker in no makeup, a wig cap on his head, wearing a waist cincher and a panty girdle with lumpy hip pads. Snarking about the “agréable séjour,” he tucks (no, really, visibly, facing front, center stage), then pulls on a pair of panties with a landing-strip merkin and bra with wobbly falsies attached. A burnt-looking french twist wig, glittery heels and a Diane von Furstenberg knockoff wrap dress in cheap polyester knit (don’t bother to ask: it’s teal) complete the look, such as it is.

Now the dancing starts, and the fun part is that there is no formal ballet; rather, the chorus kick up their heels in a series of line dances. Mercure appears inside a gift-wrapped package, emerging apparently naked but for his Louis wig. (Eventually Cithéron strips down to teeny underpants as well and hops into the box with him where a game of patty-cake very quickly leads to more sloppy kissing.) The first half ends with another suite of chorus dances, this time with transparent plastic umbrellas, and again just a few simple steps, clomped like real people, but with enormous zest.

Jupiter arrives at the beginning of the second half, and if anything he’s less appetizing than Platée, the sort of slimy mincing queen who can clear out a back room in minutes. Descending from the heavens on a crystal chandelier, he’s all in Travolta white, with high Cuban heels and pasty makeup. Mercure and Cithéron stage-manage his transformations with a few beaten-up costume pieces including (as the donkey) a fur belt with a long, flaccid black dildo attached.

La Folie arrives to entertain at the wedding, a burnt-out rocker chick in ratted hair and a short tutu; throughout her aria Platée flirts with the audience, up to and including flashing her merkin. Junon beats Mercure to a pulp, then faints from sheer rage when Platée returns in a 1950s wedding dress that looks like a Goodwill special. Hundreds of single light bulbs descend from above, reflected in the upstage mirror and the shiny stage floor so it seems we are in the middle of an infinite galaxy of tiny lights. The wedding guests, tripping, play with the bulbs like children. La Folie uses her guitar like a machine gun and mows down all the guests, and then, just at the moment the vows are about to be exchanged, Mercure and Cithéron violently strip off Platée’s dress and wig. All scream with laughter, and she, again he, half-naked and drenched in sweat, tumbles to the ground screaming in protest.

The payoff here is immense: everyone in the story is horrible, with Platée only marginally worse than everyone else, so the final humiliation is funny and enraging at the same time. It’s a critique of comedy in general insofar as it is based on cruelty, but the twist is that it is a hilarious funny critique: we laugh but we are uncomfortable with laughing at the same time.

And I can’t emphasize enough that a lot more than yelling is going on here: the singing and the music-making in general is on a world-class plane. Messrs. Morsch and Auvity are simply perfect, singing with such vast rhythmic freedom they might be making up the piece as they go, yet never violating the gallant, playful style of the music. If haute-contre music lies a trifle high for Walker’s light tenor, any strain read as Platée’s desperation. Shigeo Ishino (Momus) and Thomas Wolf (Jupiter) had such tangy and distinctive low voices that you wished they had more to sing. The only weak link, in fact, was Lenneke Ruiten‘s La Folie, pallid of tone and too careful in coloratura that really needs arena-quality shredding. Maestro Bünger was one of the company, and not just because of his cameo acting bit at the beginning of the evening: everybody played together, and everyone played together.

When we say the cast of an opera is “having fun,” we usually mean they are goofing around, making mistakes and breaking up and such. But Bieito’s direction is all about freeing performers, challenging them to take emotional and physical risks, to dare to make fools of themselves. Paradoxically, exercising this freedom to be a fool gives the performers enormous strength and confidence. Even though this comedy is raunchy and brutal, it’s got a kind of primal joy.

“Formons un spectacle nouveau,” sings the chorus at the end of the prologue: Let’s make a new kind of theater. That’s just what Calixto Bieito is doing, using opera (and the minds and bodies of opera singers) as his raw material. And when the performers are willing to given themselves over entirely (as did most of this cast, including the Stuttgart opera chorus) the resulting spectacle will pound the audience to a pulp.

Including, I might add, those highly-coveted young audiences into whom the patrons of tomorrow will (hopefully) develop. They’re always seeking the Dionysian, and Bieito is one of the few directors today who puts pure uncut Dionysus on the stage of an opera house.

On to Xerxes, and the delectable Valer Sabadus, tomorrow.

Platée. Oper Stuttgart, May 5, 2015. Musikalische Leitung: Hans Christoph Bünger, Regie: Calixto Bieito, Choreografie: Lydia Steier, Bühne: Susanne Gschwender, Kostüme: Anna Eiermann, Licht: Reinhard Traub, Chor: Johannes Knecht, Dramaturgie: Patrick Hahn

Un Satyre / Cithéron: André Morsch, Thespis / Mercure: Cyril Auvity, Momus: Shigeo Ishino, Thalie: Mirella Bunoaica, Amour / La Folie: Lenneke Ruiten, Platée: Thomas Walker, Clarine: Lauryna Bendziunaite, Jupiter: Andreas Wolf, Junon: Maria Theresa Ullrich, Mit: Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart.

Photos: A. T. Schaefer