RAMEAU: Platée (complete opera) – La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy / Jean-Claude Malgoire – Calliope (2 CDs), 138:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
I can’t imagine a Baroque opera more worthy of DVD treatment than Rameau’s comédie lyrique Platée, with its parade of mythological figures and beasts, not to mention the uproarious self-importance of its homely heroine, Platée. That said, Rameau’s attractive and inventive music makes it a tasty listening experience as well, perhaps more so than the composer’s serious operas, where the dry succession of recitatives can sap one’s listening pleasure. Calliope’s reissue of Jean-Claude Malgoire’s recording of Platée from 1988 is thus welcome, especially at mid-price.
Malgoire, in notes taken from an interview with him, states that Rameau’s opera was not received well at its premiere, but this seems open to debate. Malgoire contends that travesti roles (that is, female characters sung by males) such as Platée were frowned on in Rameau’s day. However, other authorities claim that the opera was Rameau’s most critically praised, and it was something of a hit when it was first performed in 1745 at the new theater of the Grand Equerry of Versailles – to celebrate the marriage of the Dauphin of France and the Infanta, Maria Theresa of Spain.
The plot can be summarized briefly: as the opera proper begins, Juno is in one of her typical jealous rages, which foments a thunderstorm over Mount Cithéron. When Mercury explains the source of the storm to Cithéron, the god of the mountain, Cithéron unfolds a plan to defuse her jealousy: Jupiter will pretend to fall in love with a homely water nymph named Platée, who vainly believes that no man can resist her charms. In fact, she’s sure that Cithéron is in love with her until he assures her it is Jupiter, king of the gods, who will come to court her. When Jupiter does so, he appears first in the form of a donkey (wonderfully portrayed by Rameau through orchestral “braying”), then an owl, and finally his own radiant self. La Folie (Madness) shows up and warns Platée to avoid Jupiter, but she is smitten, and a wedding is planned.
When Juno gets wind of the affair, she’s furious; coming upon Jupiter and his new love interest, she hides in order to foil the union at the last minute. But when Juno tears off Platée’s veil and sees that her rival is as ugly as the proverbial mud fence, she realizes she’s been the victim of an amiable ruse. Poor Platée returns to her pond in embarrassment, and Juno and Jupiter are reunited to general rejoicing.
The plot inspired Rameau to unleash some of his cleverest vocal and orchestral effects: choruses of frogs, fools’ dances, cuckoo serenades, capped by a wonderful, acrobatic solo for La Folie which, like so much of the opera, turns operatic convention on its head. The Second Act, high point of the opera, ends with a trio and chorus mocking Platée that, not withstanding its frivolous intent, is Rameau at his very best.
I confess I haven’t heard the rival recording of Platée by Marc Minkowsky on Erato, but I can’t imagine it’s much better sung than Malgoire’s. Bruce Brewer is both funny and sad as Platée, as he should be. And Gilles Ragon, who himself has sung Platée to acclaim, is first rate in the roles of Mercury and Thespis. But it’s Isabelle Poulenard’s La Folie that is the centerpiece of this recording. She wields her light, bright soprano like an acetylene torch in La Folie’s famed solo number.
Malgoire’s orchestra and chorus may be a little less polished than some later champions of Rameau on disc, but enthusiasm and rapport with Rameau’s style are always in evidence. Add to all this quite decent recorded sound, and you have a fine entertainment by any standard. Unfortunately, Calliope doesn’t supply a libretto, and unless your French is a good deal better than mine, I’d recommend tracking one down for optimum enjoyment. [Quelle irresponsible…Ed.]
– Lee Passarella