Satirical operas do not come with more politically incorrect subjects than that of Rameau’s Platée, the latest novelty to arrive at the New York City Opera. The figure of fun here is the titular heroine, an ill-favored but supremely self-confident marsh nymph so convinced of her feminine charms that she sets out to land the king of the gods himself. Everyone gangs up to humiliate her, even that chronic philanderer Jupiter, who intends to mollify Juno by showing his wife just how grotesque the object of her jealousy really is. In fact, Platée’s on-target if cruel humor is so effective that it’s a wonder the composer escaped with his life after the first performance. That took place in 1745 at Versailles during the wedding festivities of the Dauphin and María Teresa, a Spanish princess whispered to be the ugliest woman in Europe.
Platée has had plenty of descendants, from those middle-aged, man-hungry dragons of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan operettas to Margaret Dumont, one of the Marx brothers’ favorite victims. Like those famous laughingstocks, Rameau’s nymph is a brilliantly drawn creation and too good to lose to p.c. scruples. Much of the biting musical satire will probably be lost on audiences unfamiliar with the stylistic conventions of Baroque tragédie lyrique, which are as unsparingly parodied as the hapless heroine. No one, though, can miss how wittily the composer has characterized the vain, chattering, physically and socially challenged Platée, whose leaping, irregular vocal lines mirror her every fatuous attitude and sudden mood shift. The attendant gods, goddesses, animals, and humans are no less vividly depicted in a score that is every bit as instrumentally pungent, rhythmically infectious, and melodically rich as Rameau’s tragic masterpieces.
It would be a mean soul who did not enjoy the City Opera production, a spirited romp with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s exquisitely sung, deliciously funny, and, at times, oddly touching impersonation of Platée at its center. To make the joke even more pointed, Rameau wrote the role for a high tenor in drag; director-choreographer Mark Morris and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi have gone one step further by presenting their leading lady as a human-size frog, a vision in green with enormous flippers for feet and hands. Fouchécourt seizes the idea and positively relishes its possibilities as he fastidiously arranges his toilette, delicately hops over his paddling pool, waddles seductively up to Jupiter, and shivers at the god’s touch – a comic characterization of extraordinary imagination, resource, and precision.
In the prologue, instead of the Greek vineyard specified by the libretto, Thespis, Cupid, Momus, Thalia, and other mythical figures of theater and folly gather in a modern New York bar – a rather too predictable update of the typical Baroque-opera introduction in which the gods set the scene for what’s to come. Once the main action begins, though, Adrianne Lobel’s misty, terrarium-like swamp creates a delightful froggy fantasy, while Morris’s droll showbiz inventions at least raise a smile: a zany Momus with an arrow through his head, Mercury as a balloon-descending dandy, a dancing vaudeville horse, a comic-opera Jupiter straight out of Offenbach, an officious lizard-in-waiting. Energized by the nonstop sight gags, Morris’s indefatigable company of dancers, and the crisp playing of the orchestra under Daniel Beckwith, the large cast performs with Broadway spit and polish, with the most stylish vocal work provided by Amy Burton (L’Amour and La Folie), Matthew Chellis (Mercury), Bernard Deletré (Jupiter), and Katharine Goeldner (Juno).
Simultaneously with Platée at the City Opera, a musical satire from another century surfaced at the Juilliard School of Music: Kurt Weill’s long-buried 1935 operetta Der Kuhhandel. We have already discovered a great deal of unknown Weill during his centenary this year, and it has been an exciting if sometimes frustrating adventure. A too-short life coupled with the shattering aesthetic and political upheavals of his time prevented Weill from developing into the consistently great music-theater composer he most surely would have become in a quieter age. What this prodigiously industrious creative spirit did manage to produce is astonishing enough, and even a light piece like Der Kuhhandel, conceived by the librettist Robert Vambery as an operetta in the manner of Offenbach or Strauss, is crammed with good things. Weill began the score shortly after fleeing Germany for Paris in 1933, but by the time he had finished, he found himself in London and forced to rework the material into a West End musical comedy. Renamed A Kingdom for a Cow, the show flopped and instantly disappeared.
The Juilliard production returned to the original unproduced Kuhhandel (literally, “cow trading,” or, in German slang, shady dealing), an edition prepared by Weill scholar Lys Symonette and translated into English by Jeremy Sams. Apparently every scrap of music Weill wrote for both versions is included, a three-and-a-half-hour evening too long for its own good. Neither the crooked politicians of this imaginary Caribbean island nor its sorely beset citizenry are drawn with much wit in a libretto that lacks both the mordant political satire of Brecht and the rich vein of sentiment that Weill would soon explore in his American period. Still, the music is endlessly inventive as the composer broadens his command of international vernacular idioms to include Latin rhythms and jazz inflections as well as Central European cabaret and operetta. Judiciously pared down and provided with a sharper libretto, Der Kuhhandel might yet succeed on the strength of its music alone.
That said, Juilliard has generously filled a major gap in our knowledge of Weill. Franco Colavecchia’s sets conjured up a deliciously overripe Caribbean paradise, the score cohered beautifully under Randall Behr’s astute musical direction, and Frank Corsaro maneuvered a huge cast of talented students and guests over the stage with his customary skill and wry comic invention. What we badly need now is a detailed reexamination of Weill’s later adventures on Broadway during the forties.