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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Opera Review: They Can't Dance

Les Arts Florissants revives Rameau's Platée.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Les Arts Florissants. That's William Christie in the lower right.
Photo by Guy Vivien © 2013 Erato Records.
On Wednesday night, William Christie's period performance ensemble Les Arts Florissants returned to Lincoln Center. The occasion: a  concert performance of Platée, the astonishing comédie lyrique by Jean-Philippe Rameau that marks the birth of comic opera in France. The year was 1745.

Written for the comic sensibilities of the court of Louis XV, the comedy in Platée is both hilarious and somewhat repellent. It is the story of the god Jupiter, who dallies with the hideously ugly swamp-dwelling nymph Platée in order to convince his jealous wife Juno that he is actually faithful. In the end, Platée is spurned and outraged, laughed at by the assembled cast and chorus.

Although ballet is central to a performance of Platée, this concert performance featured a minimal set and very little dancing. Rather, listeners were treated to the Les Arts Florissants players on wooden flutes, and oboes, antique stringed instruments and harpsichord, under the leadership of conductor Paul Agnew. (William Christie was present, although recent shoulder surgery confined the ensemble's music director to the role of observer. He did stay to sign CDs after the performance.)

Luckily, this brilliant score is entertaining in its own right, filled with bits of orchestral inspiration that shows Rameau's influence on Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. From the Act I downpour that leads to the oboes imitating the croak of frogs to the Act III chaconne (repeated no less than 15 times in an elaborate musical joke) this score never failed to delight the ear. Mr. Agnew led a taut performance, working closely with his cast of singers and drawing a wealth of sonic detail from his players.

This might be one of the few operas where the leading role is sung by a man in drag (in this case, tenor Marcel Beekman), playing an "ugly" woman. Mr. Beekman did the whole show in heavy makeup, gaudy jewelry and an ugly orange sheath with four-inch Lucite heels. Happily, he also sang the part with a supple, flexable tenor that responded to the nuances of Rameau's score, and proved an angry, pathetic and yet sympathetic figure in the opera's denouement.


The jaw-dropping performance here was soprano Simone Kernes in the role of La Folie (Folly.) Her Act II aria was a show-stopper, complete with ornamentation and tossed-off high notes that thrilled the audience and prefaced Mozart's demanding arias for the soprano voice. (She also danced--sort of in the elaborate pre-wedding celebration that closes the second act.) In a bustled black-and-gold skirt and a pair of heels that matched Mr. Beekman's Ms. Kernes proved a charismatic presence and an audience favorite.

Two fine basses were less flashy but just as impressive. Edwin Crossley-Mercer was an agile, authoritative Jupiter, playing the philandering King of the Gods with suitable gravitas, his smallish voice ideal for the bright confines of Alice Tully Hall. Even better: João Fernandes as Momus, whose comic capering in the last scene threatened to steal the thunder from the thunder god himself. Mr. Fernandes also set the tone early in a Prologue, engaging in good-natured drunken dialogue with tenor Cyril Auvity, himself doubling the roles of Thespis and the messenger god Mercury. Marc Mauillon impressed in the smaller role of Cithéron, whose main contribution is that he bears the brunt of Platée's anger in the final scene.

Mr. Christie's ensemble continued its track record of finding talented, if small-voiced singers with Emanuelle de Negri (as L'Amour and Calrine) and Virginie Thomas, who impressed in the first act as Thalie. Less pleasing: the under-sized, slightly metallic voice of Emilie Renard, who might do better if she wasn't singing the ungratefully written part of Juno, Jupiter's jealous wife.

The ensemble singers were taut and experienced, popping up to participate in the comedy and singing in unision or divided into male and female groups. Given the loyalty of this group's fanbase and the renewed interest in the genius of Rameau and the French baroque in general. Platée should come back to New York eventually. Hopefully, it will be a fully staged version, replete with the wit and visual inspiration that were the only components missing from this performance.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.