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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Platée

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Platée, Santa Fe Opera
photo by Ken Howard © 2007
The Santa Fe Opera has adapted the Opéra National de Paris’s smashingly silly production (you can watch clips from Paris on YouTube) of Rameau’s lyric comedy Platée. The success of the production by Laurent Pelly (director and costume designer), Chantal Thomas (scenic designer), and Laura Scozzi (choreographer) highlights the grounds for their growing popularity. (Pelly's staging of Cendrillon was one of the high points of last summer in Santa Fe.) Platée was premiered in 1745 for the celebration of Louis XV’s son’s marriage to Maria Theresa. The opera’s green water-nymph main character, with a speech impediment, shares with Maria Theresa the attribute of being rough on the eyes -- an apparently well-known connection at the time. The work centers on the gods' reenactment of a method used by Jupiter to quiet his wife Juno’s jealousy and teach a lesson to both gods and mortals.

Platée, directed by Laurent Pelly
Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
The opera being a play within a play, the substantial overture showed ushers with little flashlights rushing people around to their seats, then moving them and crawling between rows of the steep set with the occasional flash of uplifted skirt ending in hearty laughter and applause from the audience once the chorus was finally seated. The Prologue featured Thespis (Norman Reinhardt) sprawled across a few rows of the front seats with a near-empty bottle at his side ignoring the chorus trying to awaken him. Once sobered up, the scheme was set and Cupid (Leena Chopra), eventually wearing only red lingerie, interrupted to complain about not being involved, saying “just see that I get proper credit… and that young lovers know who I am.” The chorus sang “well put on a splendid show; long live Bacchus and wine,” and a long table with 100+ glasses of wine was pushed to center stage. A frog leapt from behind it to feed Thespis more wine. A quick, punctuated dance movement with five male dancers and the six female ushers, who get their rears grabbed, precede Thespis’s slumbering back to sleep stretched across a few front-row seats. Let the show begin.

Other Reviews:

Swamp Thing (Out West arts, August 13)

Wes Blomster, Santa Fe Opera season pleases — and provokes (Boulder Daily Camera, August 10)

Scott Cantrell, Gods, frogs and nymphs in Santa Fe Opera's comedic 'Platée' (Dallas Morning News, August 3)

Alicia Solomon, French baroque opera is fun in 'Platee' (Los Alamos Monitor, August 2)

John Stege, Fairy Tale Frogs (Santa Fe Reporter, August 1)
Platée, the leader of the swamp, makes her entrance in Act I. She’s a tenor (Jean-Paul Fouchécourt -- whom Ionarts last reviewed in excerpts of this opera with Opera Lafayette), and very ugly – sort of like a daintily singing bag lady with very long, slimy fingers. Randomly, a half-dozen frog-like things pop up from the floor making “qua qua” sounds in rhythm to the music. Mercury, who had descended from the ceiling to charming descending string figures, tells Platée that Jupiter (Wilbur Pauley) will soon descend to declare his love for her. After that, an excellent dancing troupe of thirteen frogs began a groovy step, playing leap-frog, while one began break-dancing, ending in a virtuosic head-spin. A second dance movement in different rhythm accompanied the frogs lying on their backs, legs in the air with feet shaking in rhythm. Highlights of the rest of the production include the musical and actual fireworks at Jupiter's descent into the swamp, Folly’s (Heidi Stober) dress composed of sheets of music (some of which she sings from and later hands to an orchestra member), and Juno’s scream -- western rifle in hand -- as she lifts Platée’s veil at the mock-wedding. That scream immediately turns to laughter once she has realized the farce, exclaiming to Jupiter: “You have restored peace to my heart... let us ascend to the clouds.” This occurs as Platée runs offstage, soon followed by a sympathetic frog.

Platée, directed by Laurent Pelly
Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2007
The easy-going, pleasing style of the French Baroque allowed the comic momentum to be sustained throughout the entire opera. Likely the first time performing music of this period, Santa Fe’s tenured professional orchestra did an admirable job tackling their most difficult work in one member’s thirty-year recollection. British conductor Harry Bicket (future artistic director of the English Concert), after a disastrous first rehearsal (by one report), achieved good contrasts and overall results by giving very clear guidance; yet one wished for the extra overtones of gut strings and the lighter releases that Baroque bows help capture.

Bicket amusingly gave up his baton to a frog after Act II, when during the long set change a bored-acting frog beside the audience began gesturing for the conductor to begin the introduction to Act III. Bicket finally complied, and the frog strutted through the audience, perched behind the conductor, and began messing with his hair. Bicket lunged after the frog, though the frog escaped, only to return (after grabbing a bass player’s music and handing it to an audience member) to steal Bicket’s baton, cut off the orchestral introduction at its actual end, and take a massive frog bow to applause from the real audience.

Platée, directed by Laurent Pelly, Santa Fe Opera, photos by Ken Howard © 2007

Besides the ridiculous act, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt best idealized the French Baroque style by targeting dissonance and exploiting it. Heidi Stober (Folly) conveyed impressive dramatic energy and presence, while Norman Reinhardt (Thespis and Mercury) sang beautifully with voice always floridly in motion -- perhaps he had an off night the previous evening. The impressive chorus matched the dance troupe in virtuosity, though were at times a bit screamy.

As an angry Platée was dragged around by the dancers and teased by Folly and the gang, one sympathized her because of the cruelty shown her: a true victim who lost power over her swamp creatures. After having her threats mocked, Platée, who was just realizing her fate, bemoaned: “They’re not scared of me at all.”

This production repeats on August 16 and 22.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw this twice earlier this year in Paris, just to hear the big Folie aria, which was the highlight. Mireille Delunsch stole the show. What a voice/presence!

I'm sorry to report that the singing in the rest of the Paris production was a joke. Sorry to be so harsh, but this production got so much good press in France that I think it's important to balance the picture for those that weren't there.

Visually interesting yes, but in my book singing is still important re: opera.

The chorus was weak and the other soloists sounded exhausted (or just past their prime, you choose).

Apropos: when will François Leroux retire and save us his barking?

His stage presence remains huge, granted, but that's not enough, especially with so many talented young baritones out there waiting for their turn.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is wonderful dramatically, but his voice was sounded like screaming. So many approximations of runs I lost count.

There's no reason why a production this irreverent and fun can't have good singing. Are there direct flights from Paris to Santa Fe?

PS: The orchestra was good, bouncy and translucent as ever under M.M. One complaint: he tends to choose the same cadences to emphasize; the phrasing is constantly in danger of monotony (particularly the second time around).