Platée, Theater an der Wien, Vienna – review

Rameau’s swamp goddess is the Miss Piggy of the baroque. The ultimate fashion victim, she is unshakeably convinced of her own powers of attraction until the opera’s cruel end.

For Robert Carsen’s new production for the Theater an der Wien, Platée plays in today’s fashion-driven high society. Jupiter is Karl Lagerfeld, complete with fluffy cat; Juno is Coco Chanel, locked in a state of constant irritation. And La Folie starts out as Lady Gaga before morphing through a series of comparably over-the-top incarnations.

William Christie should have conducted this staging, but heart surgery intervened, and Paul Agnew took over. Christie had already rehearsed extensively, and his stamp can be clearly felt, in playing that is crisp and precise, rhythms that have the raw spring of popular dance music, and an overarching sense of balance. Agnew brings his own drive and flinty edge to the work, favouring a rougher attack than Christie might have brought. This has its own excitement, and the musicians of Les Arts Florissants reward him with invigorating playing.

Gideon Davey’s design is extravagant, with frequent costume changes, chandeliers, mirrors and glittering opulence throughout. This hysterical, shallow society gathers at a drunken toga party. Platée emerges from her swamp wrapped in towels and towing a score of beauty therapists, gloriously unaware of the fact that she is completely out of place in their fashionable dining-room. As Jupiter’s plot unfolds, the action moves from bar to bondage club, studio to bedroom, via disco balls, cross-dressing and plenty of dance numbers (choreography: Nicolas Paul).

Rameau’s Platée, as Carsen sees her, is not a man pretending to be a woman, but rather a woman portrayed by a man – less parody, more nonconformist outsider. Marcel Beekman triumphs in the title role, with singing so sweet, so polished, so lyrical and so moving that we sympathise no matter how ridiculous the situation. Through Beekman’s song, we see the inner beauty that Platée perceives in herself. The final scene, as the ridiculed nymph is left trembling in nothing but spangled underwear, is all the more disturbing for this.

Cyril Auvity’s supple Mercure, Edwin Crossley-Mercer’s sonorous Jupiter, Marc Mauillon’s pure-toned Momus/Cithéron and most of their stage peers sing the smaller roles with taste and flair. As La Folie, Simone Kermes plays herself, an over-the-top diva who tries to sing baroque arias like a rock star, compensating with bounce and zeal for screeched top notes and fluffed coloratura runs. She does not really belong in Christie’s stable of thoroughbreds, but, like Platée, she seems blissfully unaware of the fact.

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