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GRAMOPHONE (12/2021)
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Harmonia Mundi  

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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

Rameau’s Platée was described in its time as a ballet bouffon, an example of the kind of ambiguous, seemingly ad hoc classification that could be attached to French Baroque operatic entertainments that stood outside the focused tradition of stern old tragédie lyrique. But if it is less lofty in demeanour, imposing in scale or edifying in its subject matter, it should not be mistaken for a trivial piece. In fact, it is one of its composer’s most brilliant creations. Comedy often brings out the best in theatre composers, demanding the full range and quickness of their musico-dramatic skills, and Rameau’s response is that of a confirmed operatic genius.

Considering that it was composed for the court celebrations of the marriage of the Dauphin to a Spanish princess in 1745, its subject matter is surprising: the mock-marriage of Jupiter to Platée, an ugly yet vain marsh nymph, the whole thing got up as a ruse to teach Jupiter’s ever-jealous partner Juno a lesson. The cruelty of it is unsettling – the duped but harmless Platée enjoys neither redemption nor reward, only final and heartless ridicule – but there is a sense that mockery, possibly even of audience and artists, is itself a subject here: the musical conventions of French opera are relentlessly and cleverly lampooned, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so and often funnily, not least by the visiting allegorical figure of Folly, who skewers quite a few of them in her crazy showstealing air ‘Formons les plus brillants concerts’, and, in borrowing Apollo’s lyre and promising to ‘accomplish a masterpiece of harmony’ (a passage of Rameau-esque plangency which Platée impatiently interrupts), perhaps makes fun of the distinguished old composer himself.

This recording results from a production by Robert Carsen for the Theater an der Wien. William Christie was unable to conduct the first run in 2014 because of illness, and Covid scuppered the revival intended for December 2020, so here we have a live performance (stage noises included) without audience. Thank goodness it has been captured! Christie’s conducting is masterly, totally in command of the idiom, faultless in dramatic timing and pacing, encouraging of vivid and colourful characterisation from his singers, and easily ticking off the score’s comic tricks. Naturalness of dialogue, always a strength with Christie and perhaps more vital than ever in a comedy, is also effortlessly achieved. The orchestral sound is full yet clear (though the live recording reveals some scrambling in quick passages), and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, with the added French colouring of Les Arts Florissants’ haut-contres, is a robust presence.

Platée was always intended as a travesty role, and the solo cast is led by Marcel Beekman, who modifies his own haut-contre voice to an ungainly baaing without losing anything in expressive power or volume. His repeated utterances of ‘quoi’, Platée’s response to much of what goes on around her, are like petulant quacks, and his final words, alone on stage as the taunters clear off, are touching. Jeanine De Bique is in great voice as La Folie, and there are solid contributions from Marc Mauillon as Momus/Cithéron, Edwin CrossleyMercer as Jupiter, Emmanuelle de Negri as Amour and Emilie Renard as raging Juno. Only Cyril Auvity disappoints, struggling for high notes, especially in the Prologue.

Overall, however, the result is certainly a Platée to choose among the clutch on record, which includes a decent 1988 studio effort from Marc Minkowski in which Jennifer Smith is an outstanding Folie and Gilles Ragon an adequate, if undercharacterised, Platée. For musical generosity, understanding and laughs, Christie is your man.

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