When going to any Calixto Bieito production, you can be reasonably sure that normal rules will not apply. When going to his take on Rameau's Platée, which was a pretty off-the-wall number even in its original version as a ballet bouffon in 1745, some level of craziness was even more likely. But nothing quite prepares you for the level of high energy wackiness with which you are assaulted by Bieito and Oper Stuttgart.

Thomas Walker (Platée), Shigeo Ishino (Momus) and Andreas Wolf (Jupiter) © A.T. Schaefer
Thomas Walker (Platée), Shigeo Ishino (Momus) and Andreas Wolf (Jupiter)
© A.T. Schaefer

The fun starts about a third of the way through the overture, when a black-clad figure wanders from the front of the stage round to the railing above the podium, starts making bored gestures at the conductor, and eventually shoves him out of the way and starts enthusiastically conducting the orchestra himself... which he proceeds to do for the rest of the evening, since this is musical director Hans Christoph Bünger. In fact, the one non-wacky part of the evening is the orchestral performance, which is bright, upbeat and sweet-toned throughout. No hint of period instruments here, which provides a reminder that modern instruments can sound just as wonderful when playing Rameau's tuneful and energetic Baroque music as they can on newer material.

Platée's premise is that Mercury and various others cook up a plot to reassure Juno about her husband's fidelity by staging a fake wedding between Jupiter and the ugliest nymph they can find: the unfortunate target being the swamp nymph Platée. The amount of play-within-a-play-within-a-play, cross-dressing, doubling up of parts and general opéra-bouffe antics is enough to keep you in a severe state of confusion even when in Row 4 of the audience, and I'm not even going to attempt to give details. But with the staging and singing performances, it didn't really matter.

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

The title role is by a long way the biggest and tenor Thomas Walker gave a bravura performance. The nature of the original voice type, the French haute-contre, is debated by scholars: Walker sang in something like a normal light tenor voice, but stretching upwards into counter-tenor territory with the joins barely audible. His voice was constantly full of character, and he minced around the stage delivering his comic visual gags as if he'd been born in a Victorian music hall.

The other big role is "La Folie", who is at the centre of the very long wedding feast divertissement in Act II (Platée was written for the wedding of Louis XV to the apparently rather plain Maria Theresa – the fact that Rameau not only retained his head but subsequently received a royal appointment being testament to the fact that the French royals of the day must have had a sense of humour). Lenneke Ruiten dominated the stage, resplendent in tutu, whiteface, goth eye make-up, with microphone stand and electric guitar (the original calls for a lyre), bringing the house down with a rockstar-style "Bonjouuuuuur, Stuttgart"! She also proceeded to show impeccable Baroque vocal credentials (as, in fact, she had done in the role of L'amour earlier on), sounding clear, strong and flexible. Her rock star aria "Que les plaisirs les plus aimables" was an absolute showstopper.

Lenneke Ruiten (Amour / La Folie) © A.T. Schaefer
Lenneke Ruiten (Amour / La Folie)
© A.T. Schaefer

The supporting cast was strong, with no real weak links. I'll single out Lauryna Bendžiūnaitė, with a particularly attractive bell-like voice in her small role as Platée's friend Clarine, and Cyril Auvity, splendid as the conniving Mercury and the poet Thespis (who is supposed to be composing all this as we go).

Thomas Walker (Platée) and Andreas Wolf (Jupiter) © A.T. Schaefer
Thomas Walker (Platée) and Andreas Wolf (Jupiter)
© A.T. Schaefer
It wouldn't be Bieito if there wasn't any sex on stage, preferably gay sex, and we had plenty of erotic gags ranging from the relatively discreet sight (four bare feet waggling suggestively) to the not-even-slightly-discreet (the largest strap-on penis you are ever likely to see on an operatic stage, with unspeakable things being done with feather dusters), ranging from the quite subtle down to basic toilet humour. I'm fairly neutral about the erotic content – some of it was fun, some of it a bit tedious – plus some staging gags that were merely bizarre, like the Queen Elisabeth II lookalike munching flowers during the wedding. But I really loved the production visuals. Anna Eiermann's costumes were a riot of black, white and gold. Lydia Steier's choreography was constantly entertaining. What really wowed was the staging of the divertissement that followed La Folie's "Que les plaisirs": as the music was taken down to an exquisitely played lyrical slow movement, the hundreds of light bulbs that had been high up and blue (representing Juno's rain storm) turned to a warm, golden light and were lowered to the level of the chorus, who swayed them gently as the music wrapped itself around you. It made for a rare visual and musical treat.

As I close, I muse on my last three operas – the high energy madness of Platée, the tortured psychological existantialism of Szymanowski's Król Roger and the traditional Italian melodrama of La forza del destino – and I can merely marvel at sheer quality and variety of opera on offer these days. We're truly in a golden age of performance.

****1