The spirit of William Christie hung over this Platée from Les Arts Florissants, even if the man himself was forced by recent surgery to watch from a box rather than direct from the stage. Stylish, dramatic, reflective, and immaculately performed, this was a fine performance of an off-putting work.

Paul Agnew © Pascal Gely
Paul Agnew
© Pascal Gely

Les Arts Florissants’ Platée has been on tour for a while now, notably to Vienna (where we reviewed it) and Paris. In Europe, it was performed in an opulent Robert Carsen production that focused on the hypocrisy and innate nastiness of the ways in which society, and especially the fashion industry, conceptualises and promotes “beauty”. The work itself, written for the marriage of the Dauphin to Maria Theresa in 1745, is rather jarring if not taken explicitly as satire. Platée is a marsh-dwelling nymph, who finds herself the object of a godly plot. Junon, Jupiter’s wife, is going through a jealous spell, and so Jupiter, Mercure, Chitéron, and representations of Comedy, Love, and Ridicule (conniving with the wines of Bacchus) all concoct a way to show her the error of her ways. Jupiter descends to earth and plans to marry Platée, who is vain, stupid, and most importantly ugly. Eventually Junon, sent on a wild chase through Athens by Mercure to pique her anger, finds Platée and Jupiter exchanging wedding vows. Seeing Platée’s face, she realises Jupiter must be kidding her, and all is well in the land of the gods. Platée, rightly upset, trudges off, as a crowd heckles with songs of her charms.

There was no Carsen for New York – a "busker's version", Christie said – and barely a smattering of costumes were brought over with the troupe. Platée kept her pink frock, ostentatious jewellery, and beehive hair. The other characters, acting superbly together and with the chorus, were in usual concert dress, albeit with some suggestive suits among the men. Mercure, for instance, is absolutely the organisation man he became here. But the resulting message was a bit confusing.

What we had, on first glance, was a man dressed in drag being hounded for how she looked and hoped, an uncomfortable sight in today’s New York. Stripped of the rest of the production, I was left to wonder whether this was intended as a satire on beliefs about beauty and hierarchy, or a simple (and cruel) presentation of them, or a way to make us feel better about our supposedly progressive contemporary mores. Paul Agnew’s loving conducting tended to suggest that we ought to feel sympathy for the central character, but that was totally undercut by Marcel Beekman’s gurning characterisation of her as Dame Edna Everage without the knowing humour, and his determination to sing in a consciously ugly manner, flat and with horrible pronunciation. Many in the audience found this hilarious. I just felt awkward.

In musical terms, this was as good as could be hoped from a period band. Rameau requires flexibility, which Agnew, standing in for Christie, deployed with admirable precision. Just as remarkably, he brought out connections between the myriad dances and repetitions of the overture. If that looked forward to the future of opera, Agnew's tendency to focus on the first violins and leave the woodwinds alone sadly muted Rameau’s rather tasty harmonic language. The large orchestra played with the freedom born of true understanding of a score, and despite the period instruments it sounded fulsome.

Marcel Beekman © Marco Borggreve
Marcel Beekman
© Marco Borggreve

The cast was without weak links, Beekman’s Platée aside (and even that was irritating only through interpretive choice). Cyril Auvity’s smooth tenor proved winning as both Thespis and Mercure, finding lyricism in largely conversational vocal lines. He acted nattily, in body and in voice, adjusting his ornamentation according to levels of drunkenness (as Thespis) or servitude (as Mercure). Marc Mauillon overcame a slightly shaky start as Cithéron, and sang with a striking attention to the text. Edwin Crossley-Mercer is clearly a star in the making. He has a vast, woofly bass, and exuded sexual prowess and a godly dignity as Jupiter. Of the ladies, Simone Kermes played La Folie as a rock chic, sporting a ridiculous black dress, “period” in black and gold brocade, and cut away to reveal a miniskirt. Dance moves recalled less the ballet than mid-90s girl bands. Her vocal fireworks were undeniably impressive, although her middle range has eroded over the years, and she was self-regarding and diva-ish in a way that perfectly encapsulated the character’s purpose in the work. Each of Emilie Renard (Junon), Emmanuelle de Negri (L’Amour and Clarine), Virginie Thomas (Thalie), and João Fernandes (Momus) sang creditably, and added much more to the ensemble performance than their small parts might suggest.

Caveats aside, this was a superb, energetic evening.

****1