Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Recently the French dictionary Le Petit Robert included among its words the neologism “iel”, a combination of “il” and “elle” as an ungendered third person pronoun – the equivalent of the English “they” – for a person who does not wish to be classified as male or female. The French minister for education threw up his hands in horror. “This ‘woke’ ideology will destroy French values!”, he said.
When Rameau’s comic opera Platée, was first performed in 1745, no less an upholder of French values than Voltaire declared “It is the height of indecency… and impertinence”. This despite one of Rameau’s chief detractors, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, pronouncing it “The best musical play ever to be heard in our theatres”. Isn’t it wonderful when art polarises opinion, and forces us to reconsider our “values”, which are then often exposed as simply prejudices? The great opportunity of theatrical comedy is to play upon the contradictions, to make us realise how much absurdity there is in our everyday assumptions.
The opera Platée centres around an ugly water-nymph (you thought they were all beautiful?) who becomes a plaything of the powers that be, in the end suffering a humiliation about which the gods care as little as our present government cares about refugees. When the director Neil Armfield, in my opinion Australia’s most interesting and engaging opera director, saw the singer Kanen Breen, (it’s a drag role) he realised he couldn’t possibly make him ugly, so he opted for the indecency which so appalled Voltaire. As the character Platée, Breen dominated the action in a most outrageously camp style, one might say out-Koskying Barry Kosky. He was dressed in a short lime-green cape and high pink lamé boots (with enormous platform heels) which stopped just in time to reveal a swathe of immaculately shaved thigh; and he cavorted with more than provocative abandon while all the time negotiating the extraordinary vocal demands of this score.
Kanen Breen is a genuine haut-contre, that voice beloved in the 18th century by the French which is between a high tenor and a counter-tenor. He would have stolen any show, but in this production he was matched by the amazing soprano Cathy-Di Zhang. She played two roles, Cupid and Madness, and the only adjustment she made to her diaphanous white costume between the two roles was to paint her lips black (for Madness). The effect of this was to conflate the idea of love with madness, and to give the audience to understand that her roles were an alter ego to Platée. Furthermore, in the big picture her conflation of the two roles underlined the madness inherent in treating love in the way the gods do in this opera.
Other coups de théatre of Armfield’s included the arrival of Mercury, not on a platform suspended from the flats which the 18the century Paris audience would have expected, but on a luggage trolley from Central Station; the use of an on-stage photographer to project images onto a screen, and the introduction into the cast of two of the most dearly loved singers from Opera Australia, Peter Coleman-Wright and Cheryl Barker. As Jupiter and Juno, they resembled Theseus and Hippolita from Midsummer Nights Dream; royalty arriving from another plane of being. As in the Shakespeare, this extra level compounds the kaleidoscopic viewpoints offered to the audience, and undermines any attempt to find a single moral standpoint from which to judge the opera.
Nothing in Armfield’s productions is gratuitous. Every obscenity, every absurdity was linked to something in the play or in the music – often in the latter. How rare it is to find, in these days of the director’s theatre, a director like Armfield with such a deep respect for the score. And of course he works very closely with the musical director, Erin Helyard.
Prima la musica. Pinchgut has always put the music in first place and the play second (unlike Monteverdi). The importance of the music to Pinchgut’s performances was emphasised in Armfield’s decision to have the musicians on the stage, and having the action played out in front of them. And the music of this opera is wonderful. In the prologue Rameau parodies the Italian style current at his time (think Vivaldi with a pinch of Pergolesi), but when the opera gets going he uses his full rhetorical, textural, and harmonic palette, while still parodying what were thought of at the time as Italian excesses. Erin Helyard directed an ensemble now well schooled in distinguishing between the various styles of the baroque era, and drew the maximum out of Rameau’s gorgeous score. Like his French contemporaries, Rameau loved the melting dissonances created by double suspensions, and in his scores the use of wind instruments is particularly delicious. The aria with oboe obbligato towards the end of the first half, in a key which the tuning system used in this performance (d’Alembert?) made sound particularly plangent, was played most expressively by Adam Masters, supported by Simon Rickard on bassoon (how Rameau loves his bassoons, and how he would have loved Rickard!).
The singers were, as is now practically always the case in Pinchgut’s productions, uniformly excellent. If I singled out Cathy-Di Zhang earlier, that is not to diminish the clear and present tenor of Nicholas Jones (Mercury) or the versatile baritone of David Greco in the the part of Momus, the god of mimicry. And what about the chorus! Cantillation is an assembly of singers all well-suited to early music, and over the years first Antony Walker and then Erin Helyard have worked with them to produce a chorus perfectly adapted to the demands of Baroque opera. And it is worth commenting on the actual music of the choruses, which includes choral writing as good as I have ever heard in any opera at all – only Benjamin Britten even comes close.
Interestingly, Armfield let both Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright act as they would with OA, and Helyard let them sing that way too. The result underlined, in the gentlest way, the difference that has arisen between these two wonderful opera companies. One, an international showcase for the world’s best opera singers in the standard operatic repertoire between Mozart and Strauss (and a little outside that); the other carving out a position as one of the finest Baroque opera companies in the world.
Pinchgut’s production of Platée is a banquet for the senses. It is also a milestone in its history of 20 years of productions, a glittering success even by their own standards.
Pinchgut Opera presents
by Jean-Philippe Rameau
Director Neil Armfield
Venue: City Recital Hall | Sydney
Dates: 01/12/2021 – 08/12/2021