Fashion Victims: Platée from the Theater an der Wien

Rameau – Platée

Un Satyre / Momus – Pádraic Rowan
Thespis / Mercure – Cyril Auvity
Cithéron / Momus – Marc Mauillon

Thalie – Ilona Revolskaya
La Folie – Jeanine de Bique
Platée – Marcel Beekman
Clarine / Amour – Emmanuelle de Negri
Jupiter – Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Junon – Émilie Renard

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Les Arts Florissants / William Christie.
Stage director – Robert Carsen.  Video director – Davide Mancini.

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.  Monday, December 14th, 2020.  Streamed via 3Sat.

This revival of Robert Carsen’s 2014 production of Platée fell victim to the December lockdown in the Austrian capital.  Rather than lose the work that had gone into preparing the staging, the Theater an der Wien instead performed it without a public and had it recorded for posterity by ORF.  This transpired to be a most fortuitous choice, because this Platée is one that any lover of opera needs to see – and indeed would be one to convert even the most reluctant opera skeptic.

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

Carsen sets the action in the world of fashion.  The chorus and principals exist in a world of both style and conformity.  In this, Platée cannot be anything other than an outsider.  We are first introduced to her in an upscale brasserie, where surrounded by the fashionistas dining and air kissing, Platée stands out, dressed only in a towel attended to by her companion.  Carsen plays the show for laughs for much of the evening – the energy produced by the Arnold Schoenberg Chor and the principals in the prologue would be enough to power the Viennese electricity supply for months.  Similarly, Jeanine De Bique’s Folie tears up the stage both in her dancing and in her showstopping account of Folie’s aria.  And yet, as the evening develops, we become increasingly aware of Platée’s otherness – in the way that she remains an outsider in the polysexual orgy that opens Act 3, or how Jupiter photographs her, only for these photos to be mocked by the ensemble.  The impact we feel for Platée’s plight is heightened by the joy produced by those visually sumptuous dance scenes or the effervescent life of Rameau’s music.  Carsen gives us a bittersweet ending, but it really is the only possible one. 

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

The fact that the performance was so engaging was also due to the sheer joy of the cast performing on stage.  While the orchestra wore masks, on stage we were given a performance that was so fully engaged, with characters completely relating to each other.  There was an unmistakable chemistry between Marc Mauillon’s Cithéron and Cyril Auvity’s Mercure that exemplified the delight both had in working with each other.  While Marcel Beekman’s Platée was fearless in his physicality, throwing himself into everything Carsen asked of him.  The evening also lived thanks to the impeccable diction of almost all the cast. 

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

Indeed, Beekman proved himself equal to the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role.  His high tenor seemed without limits, soaring over the orchestral lines with ease.  He wasn’t afraid to bring some ugliness into the tone, using a bleat in places or narrowing the tone for comic effect.  His was a Platée truly sung off the text, in impeccable French.  De Bique gave us a sensationally sung Folie.  She’s a fabulous dancer, more than holding her own with the ballet in Nicolas Paul’s choreography.  She also has that kind of instinctive musicality that cannot be taught.  If there was one thing that let De Bique down, it was the clarity of her diction, which was rather foggy, especially compared to her castmates who really made the words live.  Make no mistake though, this is a very special voice and a remarkable artist. 

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang Jupiter in a robust baritone, firm of tone, and not afraid to dive into the sepulchral depths.  Auvity and Mauillon also dispatched their music with stylistic panache – Auvity bright of tone and easy on top, Mauillon slightly more nasal on high but with a surprisingly resonant bottom.  Pádraic Rowan raised expectations as he opened the prologue thanks to his excellent sung French and warm baritone, and throughout the evening his authoritative sense of style and willingness to throw himself fully into Carsen’s staging gave much pleasure.  Émilie Renard was suitably extrovert as Junon, sung in an agreeably soft-grained mezzo.

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor, prepared by Roger Díaz Cajamarca, sang with wonderfully fresh tone and an innate sense of the style – and in equally admirable French.  The energy that they brought to all asked of them and the sheer rhythmic clarity they found in the music was utterly captivating.  That undeniable sense of rhythm was also thanks to William Christie’s inspirational conducting.  Combined with the liveliness of the movement on stage, there was a momentum to Christie’s reading that was unmistakable.  Les Arts Florissants have this music in their bones and sound of the period strings, the piquant winds and the unmistakable energy to their playing made the evening fly by. 

Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

This Platée is most certainly a must see for any lover of opera and indeed for anyone who wants to watch enjoyable, vibrant music theatre.  It would be hard to think of a more convincing cast and combined with the almost universally excellent diction, this was an evening where the text was placed front and centre where it belonged.  It’s undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen from Carsen, who gives us a staging that makes us laugh, but also invites us to reflect on how we treat outsiders and what happens after practical jokes end.  The current stream is available for a week only in Germany, Austria and the Helvetic Confederation.  That said, I very much hope the Theater and der Wien is able to find a way for this to be seen more widely, and with multilanguage subtitles, as I would certainly recommend it to those new to opera.  An absolutely magnificent evening.

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