On Beauty: Platée at the Oper Stuttgart

Rameau – Platée

Un Satyre / Cithéron – André Morsch

Thespis / Mercure – Cyril Auvity

Momus – Ishino Shigeo

Thalie – Mirella Bunoaica

Amour / La Folie – Lenneke Ruiten

Platée – Thomas Walker

Clarine – Lauryna Bendžiūnaitė

Jupiter – Andreas Wolf

Junon – Maria Theresa Ullrich

Staatsopernchor Stuttgart, Staatsorchester Stuttgart / Hans Christoph Bünger

Stage director – Calixto Bieito

Oper Stuttgart, Stuttgart.  Saturday, March 28th, 2015

 This was only my second visit to the Stuttgart opera.  The first, back in 2011, was to see another of Calixto Bieito’s productions – that of Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno – and while it might seem hyperbolic to say so, it quite literally changed my life.  It made me reflect on the course of my own life, the challenges, pleasures and pains and made me resolved to make positive changes for the better.  It is quite remarkable that a piece of theatre could have that effect but then, Bieito is no ordinary director.  He is a visionary who manages to get to the heart of a work in a way very few other directors can.

Ensemble © A.T. Schaefer
Ensemble © A.T. Schaefer

In a way, tonight’s staging had a similar impact.  For Bieito, Platée is a work about finding the beauty in everything and how conventional society frowns on anything that is considered different.  As a result you have a semi-naked plus-sized lady devouring a giant Jell-O penis as Bacchus, la Folie as a bipolar, drugged-up rock chick and of course Platée herself.  We are introduced to Platée as very much a man.  Gradually he transforms into fully assuming her identity as a woman.  The way that he portrays Platée’s journey from acceptance of herself in her feminine state and her ultimate rejection by Jupiter is absolutely devastating yet not missing the comedy as part of the journey.  The show ends with Platée alone on stage, the male nakedness predominating, crying out.  In many ways, this explores a common theme in many of his shows, that sense of the individual pitted against conventional society, the way masses impose conventional views on others.  Yet even these masses seek approval from others in a similar, though different, way to Platée.  In the prologue, set in a well-lubricated party, the ensemble is faced with a large mirror at the back of the stage.  As the lights go up, they are forced to confront their true images and they’re not happy with what they see.  Their excess is a way of escaping their own reality whereas for Bieito, those who are true to themselves perhaps ultimately have a better chance of happiness.  Lit with great imaginativeness by Reinhard Traub, there were so many ravishing stage pictures that were quite wonderful to look at.

Andreas Wolf (Jupiter), Ishino Shigeo  (Momus), André Morsch (Un Satyre / Cithéron), Lenneke Ruiten (Amour / La Folie), Cyril Auvity (Thespis / Mercure), Mirella Bunoaica (Thalie) © A.T. Schaefer
Andreas Wolf (Jupiter), Ishino Shigeo (Momus), André Morsch (Un Satyre / Cithéron), Lenneke Ruiten (Amour / La Folie), Cyril Auvity (Thespis / Mercure), Mirella Bunoaica (Thalie)
© A.T. Schaefer

It was executed with extreme dedication by a superb ensemble cast.  Thomas Walker gave us a sensational performance as Platée throwing himself into the role completely. It was a performance of tremendous physicality, whether tottering around on heels or joking from within the audience or his final cries of pain.  He showed terrific comic timing too.  The dramatic performance alone was a great achievement yet he combined it with a highly accomplished vocal one.  Sung in impeccable French he had a highly impressve ease throughout the stratospheric range, the voice completely easy, even at the very top.  Stylistically he was absolutely spot-on, as indeed was the rest of the cast, sounding as if he had been singing this music all his life.

Thomas Walker (Platée) © A.T. Schaefer
Thomas Walker (Platée) © A.T. Schaefer

Cyril Auvity as Thespis and Mercure revealed a handsome tenor of great beauty.  A little dryness at the top in the prologue disappeared as he entered the opera itself.  Once he relaxed, he coped extremely well with the tessitura.  Likewise, André Morsch’s equally handsome and muscular baritone was a real asset as a Satyr and Cithéron.  Also sung in impeccable French, he was a highly watchable stage presence.  Andreas Wolf’s foppish Jupiter, descending from the flies on a chandelier, was sung in his familiar masculine bass-baritone, the voice also easily produced.  Ishino Shigeo’s Momus, again in excellent French, similarly showcased a beautifully rounded tone.

Ensemble © A.T. Schaefer
Ensemble © A.T. Schaefer

For the ladies, Lenneke Ruiten’s rock chick Folie was great value.  I can’t say I understood every word she sang but her frequent forays into the stratosphere were impressive, never compromising the beauty of the tone.  Mirella Bunoaica and Lauryna Bendžiūnaitė made solid impressions in their respective roles.

Lenneke Ruiten (la Folie) © A.T. Schaefer
Lenneke Ruiten (la Folie) © A.T. Schaefer

The chorus took a little while to settle, the tone wasn’t ideally focused at first but they later warmed up and gave us stylistically appropriate singing while running around, dancing and generally having a good time.  This is a wonderful score, full of life and colour and it was well played by the house orchestra.  Using modern instruments and pitch but with period-style bowing and without vibrato, the sound world created by the instrumental colour was wonderful to listen to.  Hans Christoph Bünger led an elegant, well-paced reading alive to all of the score’s quicksilver changes of mood.

Andreas Wolf (Jupiter) © A.T. Schaefer
Andreas Wolf (Jupiter) © A.T. Schaefer

This was a wonderful evening in the theatre with outstanding performances from a well-matched cast.  It highlighted several outstanding talents with a couple of singers new to me I would definitely like to hear again.  It was staged in a revelatory production that really captured the spirit of the work and made it live in a way that only the finest stage directors can.

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