In our glossily perfect, airbrushed world, ugliness appears an almost deliberate failing. Shows like Ugly Betty fetishise it, while films like Nanny McPhee mark moral improvement by the gradual erasure of physical imperfection. The court of France in 1745 was no less exacting or obsessive than a modern-day Vanity Fair editor, and Rameau wrote Platée to celebrate what seemed, on the face of it, to be a doomed marriage: politically expedient, but surely passion free. The groom was the 16-year-old Louis, Dauphin of France (son of Louis XV, father of Louis XVI); the bride was the Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain, 19 years old, red-haired, and by many contemporary accounts, ill favoured. Rameau’s Platée, therefore, seems to be sailing dangerously close to the wind: the tale of an ugly marsh nymph, convinced of her own irresistibility, who believes she has charmed Jupiter himself – until he rejects her to reassure Juno of his (hardly trustworthy) fidelity. It is a story in which ugliness is seen as an arrogant fault, to be punished and finally abandoned by the divinely beautiful, as they soar back to heaven, laughing.

Thomas Walker © Robert Workman
Thomas Walker
© Robert Workman

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that Rameau could have set out simply to insult the new Dauphine in so base a manner. A consciously courtly entertainment, Platée balances on the precarious premise that, if the gods can be allowed to laugh at mortals, so a sense of humour can be a divine attribute, even a royal one. As it saw Rameau soon established as composer of the King’s Chamber Music, the joke cannot have gone down too badly.  

Above all, Platée really is funny, and the Early Opera Company milk every gleeful laugh from Rameau in a beautiful evening of music and fun. Turning petulance into an art form, Platée (Thomas Walker) enters clicking her heels, her towering curls and bearded cheeks channelling Conchita Wurst. The only singer in full costume in an otherwise concert performance, Walker employs silent physical comedy throughout the evening, adjusting his décolletage and patting his curls flirtatiously, simpering and hip-wriggling with gusto, keeping the comic energy stoked. Walker’s voice, slightly husky at times, is full of colour and expression. He is not afraid to take risks, also getting comic mileage out of occasionally hamming up his (excellent) French: the effort and commitment of his characterisation produces a memorably funny performance, all the funnier because some audience members seemed rather taken back by a drag queen opera star.

Another wonderfully camp and consummately brilliant performance comes from Mark Milhofer as Thespis and Mercure. Milhofer is fabulous, his Thespis particularly strong, rather like an immortal Noel Coward with an instinct for showmanship, while his Mercure schemes and plots with Jeeves-like effectiveness. Emmanuelle de Negri shines as L’amour, Clarine, and most memorably as La Folie in a dynamic performance, full of obvious enjoyment and always well acted, her entry as La Folie particularly showstopping, with stunning ornamentation and almost jazz-like eroticism in a series of dazzling short arias. Callum Thorpe’s huge voice is perfectly suited to Jupiter and Momus, always taking us aback with the sheer power and richness of his range. His performance was characterised rather than acted, and at times he was more focused on the conductor than on his fellow cast members, but such are the perils of concert performance; Thorpe constantly impressed. Such an exciting young singer.

Emilie Rénard excels as Thalie and a sizzlingly jealous Junon, her voice underlined by a slightly harsh edge which Rénard puts to good use in her characterisation, elsewhere sounding cleanly lyrical. Philip Tebb steps up from the Chorus to play Momus in Act II with assured skill. Martijn Cornet gives a very understated performance as Cithéron, focusing on his music above all and most comfortable in the higher part of his register: in a cheeky touch, Callum Thorpe finished a phrase for Cornet when it plunged below his reach, a perfect example of the playful spirit of gamesmanship which filled the whole evening.

The Orchestra of Early Opera Company, with Paul Agnew guest conducting, play with crispness and flourish. Rameau’s writing is elegant at all times, but bursting with ideas and images, often visualised by strings or woodwind (such as the rhapsodic, floating theme to accompany the descent of Mercure from Olympus). A special mention must go to Scott Bywater, the percussionist who also became our period-perfect FX specialist for the night, creating rain, wind and thunder with a series of glorious acoustic props (rolling sheets of paper, pieces of metal). All available to Rameau in 1745, it was intriguing to hear how penetrating these effects can be alongside a chamber orchestra.

The Chorus of the Early Opera Company sing with glorious tone and precision. Rameau’s fresh choral writing here includes lots of unusually extended notes, perhaps elongated for comic effect. Rameau keeps the chorus busy and engaged throughout, creating some stunning effects with the solo roles, particularly their duet with Thespis towards the end of the Prologue.

Despite Platée’s sad fate, the marriage between the Dauphin and his Infanta, though tragically short (she died in childbirth the next year, her daughter only surviving her by two years), was in fact extremely happy: Louis was shattered with grief by her death. Rameau’s Platée may end her opera lonely and bitter, but Louis did find true happiness with his Maria Teresa – much to everyone’s surprise.