The usual associations are Greek mythology, Italian fountains, impressionist paintings. The mythology of the nymph has also given us a term for hypersexual impulses. It’s hard to correlate any of that with the turbaned high tenor who graces this Robert Carsen production in outrageous fashion, but that is probably why Carsen directs Rameau’s ballet bouffon and we don’t.

Marcel Beekman (Platée) © Monika Rittershaus
Marcel Beekman (Platée)
© Monika Rittershaus

The twisted and judgemental world of glossy magazines is the focus of Carsen’s staging, and it’s not a bad angle for exploring a plot essentially about the humiliation of a character who imagines she’s hot, but is actually not (the big clue being that the role is sung by a man in drag, hence the turbaned tenor!). Platée lives among other nymphs in a swamp that, as delightfully evoked in the music, is home to frogs and cuckoos, and she isn’t much more attractive than her habitat. But she is convinced she is irresistible to any man, which makes her a relative of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. While it is not explicitly stated in the programme, Carsen’s production is a colourful portrayal of the modern Narcissus, embodied by party people who fight the boredom of their glittering world with alcohol, sex and cocaine.

When Cithéron comes up with the idea of arranging a mock affair between Jupiter (shown as fashion guru Karl Lagerfeld) and Platée, this is less of an attempt to show Junon the ridiculousness of her jealousy, as the party crowd perceive it, but a diverting entertainment and outlet for their contempt of anything incompatible with their idea of beauty (an idea emphasised by the silent role of notorious US Vogue director Anna Wintour). Platée only learns that she has been part of a flashy but gruesome reality show when it’s over. Whether it is only hurt vanity or rejected love that ultimately makes her kill herself with Amor’s arrow, is the question Carsen leaves open.

Simone Kermes (La Folie) and Marcel Beekman (Platée) © Monika Rittershaus
Simone Kermes (La Folie) and Marcel Beekman (Platée)
© Monika Rittershaus

Polish is a hallmark of most Carsen productions, and here team spirit and hard work have ensured that everything makes sense and looks effortless. Costume designer Gideon Davey deserves extra credit for providing masses of different costumes that range from detailed reproductions of iconic outfits to new takes on hoop skirts, gay leather attire and prêt-à-porter runway suits. Equally surprising is Nicolas Paul’s choreography. Ballet in opera can be a tricky thing, but this production is an example of how commitment to the idea can produce stunning results, especially when a game Arnold Schoenberg Chor is on hand to support the ten professional dancers not only vocally, but also physically. Much of the dancing is acrobatic, and while it fits this score perfectly, you would never guess so from seeing the moves without Rameau’s music. The only nod to processional Baroque dance comes in an haute couture runway show where the dancers show these in slow motion.

Cyril Auvity (Mercure), Marcel Beekman (Platée) and Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Jupiter) © Monika Rittershaus
Cyril Auvity (Mercure), Marcel Beekman (Platée) and Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Jupiter)
© Monika Rittershaus

The conductor was Paul Agnew, whose experience as a tenor is this repertoire is an asset he brought to this performance. I can’t remember Rameau sounding so refreshingly un-mathematical. Agnew, who has taken over the run from an indisposed William Christie, also elicited impressively precise playing from Les Art Florissants even in the fast parts that he often read as very fast, and the strings were particularly notable for producing the kind of even sound that isn’t heard too often from period bands. Vocally, things were on an accomplished level but somewhat less spectacular. The putative star of the show, Simone Kermes as La Folie (rendered here as Lady Gaga), delivered her famous coloratura and was touching in her legato parts, but seemed to struggle with placing her voice right and didn’t sound as good as she can. Of the male performances, the two tenors stood out. Cyril Auvity (Mercure) is a French Baroque stalwart, and to me the only one who didn’t get mercilessly eclipsed by Marcel Beekman in the title role. Beekman not only sings spectacularly in both the tenor and countertenor range, but is also a gifted comedian. His Platée is a bumpkin, but he clothes her in an irresistible mixture of maidenly charm and girly silliness that makes you wish someone kissed that frog and really turned her into the beautiful princess she thinks she is.

*****