Vanity at Versailles

Rameau’s colorful ballet “buffon” made a splash at its premiere at Versailles in 1745, and now the marsh nymph prepares to make her debut on DMMO’s mainstage.

The proxy marriage of Maria Theresa of Spain to King Louis XIV of France

It’s strange to imagine how an opera that is primarily an exercise in comeuppance was commissioned for a wedding celebration. Platée was composed for the nuptials of the famously imperious Spanish princess Maria Theresa at Versailles in 1745. The plot hinges on the behavior and antics of Platée, a vain marsh nymph who finds herself at the center of an elaborate joke devised by Jupiter and other gods to cure his own wife Juno of her jealousy.

Before going too far, it is important to note that the title role is meant to be sung by a man portraying a female character. Audiences are accustomed to the practice of women playing the roles of young men in some operas—here that concept is turned on its ear. In our production tenor Taylor Stayton will assume heels and corset to make his role debut as the nymph herself. Composing it in this way highlights the role’s sillier side without damaging its sympathetic qualities. To be fair, the opera’s deceptive shenanigans are more acute on page than the stage, and Rameau does direct all empathy towards Platée. Nevertheless, the premiere couldn’t have been a comfortable experience for the bride.

Pierre Jélyotte as Platée in the original production at Versailles

When it opens this season, Platée will become the earliest opera that Des Moines Metro Opera has ever programmed. When companies venture into works of the Baroque period, audiences expect operas by Handel or Monteverdi—stoic tales extoling the virtue of heroic mortals, the intervening of Fate and Fortune, and the heaping of praise on Greek and Roman gods and goddesses.

But when it came time for Des Moines Metro Opera to program a work from this period, the priority was to do something unexpected and have some fun along the way. Because comedy was never exactly central to the French opera tradition, Platée comes as a welcome surprise and serves as an anomaly of its period, no matter how baffling its origins. And its company premiere this summer is a cause for celebration.

On one level, Platée is a parody of the serious operas of its time in which Rameau ridicules the stilted gestures, language and music of his predecessors. The exaggerated vocal acrobatics will seem silly even if you don’t know what they are lampooning. The music develops into a farce at the marriage ceremony in which Momus, pretending to be Cupid, is accompanied by exaggerated orchestral effects to mimic his grief and sighs. Central to the French tradition, the dance music underscores the hilarity and near the end, the celebrants dance to a “plus noble” chaconne that is anything but noble. Rameau makes use of charming naturalistic effects to imitate the marsh sounds and various other animalistic references. With music that is both sweet and hilarious, audiences will be won over by Platée’s zany adventures.

Company favorite Zachary James appears as Jupiter (left), opposite Taylor Stayton (right) as Platée. Chas Rader-Shieber and Jacob A. Climer, who have created stunning productions of Orphée et Eurydice and Rusalka in previous seasons, return to give us a very fresh take on this early work. Astute listeners will note a line sung by Amour in the prologue who says, “In the end, love comes to all.” This is a clue to the outcome of the story, whose lesson on the pitfalls of vanity delivers a timeless message to all while getting in quite a few laughs along the way!

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