Contemporary reimaginings of Baroque opera don’t get much wilder than the current City Opera revival of Rameau’s Platée. But then, the subject matter of this delicious satire was pretty far out when it was first put on at Versailles in 1745 to mark the wedding festivities of the Dauphin and Maria Theresa, a Spanish princess whispered to be the ugliest woman in Europe. No wonder that audience had a good giggle over the lady called Platée, an ill-favored but supremely self-confident marsh nymph so convinced of her feminine charms that she sets out to land Jupiter himself. To make the joke even more pointed, Rameau wrote the role for a tenor in drag, characterizing the vain, chattering, physically and socially challenged nymph with leaping, irregular vocal lines that vividly mirror her fatuous attitudes and sudden mood shifts.
As directed and choreographed by Mark Morris and costumed by Isaac Mizrahi, the City Opera production takes this droll characterization a step further by presenting Platée as a human-size frog, a grotesque vision in green with enormous flippers for hands and feet. Set designer Adrianne Lobel’s misty, terrarium-like swamp is a delightful froggy fantasy populated by an assortment of bizarre forest beasts, whose revels are disrupted by visiting gods and goddesses from Mount Olympus as everyone gangs up to humiliate the unfortunate Platée. With Morris’s dance group and the singers seamlessly intermixed, the sight gags arrive nonstop: a dancing vaudeville donkey, Mercury as a dandy descending in a basket, a comic-opera Jupiter straight out of Offenbach, an officious lizard-in-waiting, a zany Momus with an arrow through his head.
“Fouchécourt is a deliciously vocalized, hilariously acted, and at times oddly touching Platée.”
The invention may get a bit frantic at times, but what is French Baroque opera other than just such a lively blend of music, dance, spectacle, and verbal interplay? Setting the prologue in a modern New York bar rather than the specified Greek vineyard seems rather much, but on the whole Morris and his colleagues never allow the ingredients to fly out of control, and the music—every bit as instrumentally pungent, rhythmically infectious, and melodically rich as in Rameau’s tragic masterpieces—is handsomely served under conductor Daniel Beckwith’s alert direction. Best of all, tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is back to re-create his deliciously vocalized, hilariously acted, and at times oddly touching Platée. Whether fastidiously arranging his toilette, delicately hopping over his paddling pool, or seductively waddling up to Jupiter and shivering at the god’s touch, Fouchécourt is a frog from opera heaven.
The New York Philharmonic’s first important concert of the season, with Lorin Maazel conducting, featured the world premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s Gathering Paradise—six Emily Dickinson settings for soprano (Heidi Grant Murphy) and orchestra that capture the restless fever of this poet’s style in a way that few composers ever have. The 30-minute piece deals mainly in light images, suggesting a day-to-night journey in freshly minted orchestral colors and lyrical vocal lines that make the trip compulsively listenable. To my ears, the score strongly recalls the spicy neo-impressionistic music of Thomas’s husband, Bernard Rands, whose compendiums for voice and orchestra are cast in a similar style. Clearly this is a family that thinks alike.
For those who found Thomas’s challenging new piece too prickly, there was Lang Lang to clear the air with a virtuoso dash through Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. A brash prodigy no more, at the age of 22 Lang Lang has traded his signature teenage razor-buzz for a more conservative adult haircut, and his approach to the keyboard has calmed down considerably as well. He may have little new to say about Tchaikovsky’s popular warhorse, but at least he now lets the music speak for itself.