Ballet-bouffon in one prologue and three acts (1749)
Jupiter, supreme among the gods and most unfaithful of all husbands, intends to cure his wife Juno of her jealousy once and for all – so that afterwards he can pursue his extramarital interests without her interference. Currently, though, he has no such amorous adventure in the pipeline. Despite this, Juno is still filled with suspicion and anger towards her husband and destroys the world with terrible storms. She has already ruined the entire harvest and a global famine looms. The situation cannot be allowed to continue and gives Jupiter another reason to put a stop to his wife’s fury. On his instructions, Mercure and his friend Cithéron devise a perfidious scheme to cure Juno and save humanity from its plight. For some time now, Cithéron has been pestered by Platée, an ugly marsh nymph. She is besotted with him and absolutely convinced that no man can resist her grace and beauty. She cannot understand Cithéron’s rejection of her. He now sees an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, namely to pacify Juno and get rid of Platée. The conceited marsh nymph is led to believe that Jupiter has fallen in love with her and wants to marry her. The father of the gods, who is in on the plan, plays his part in accordance with mythological tradition: he woos Platée in the form of a cloud, serenades her with tender love songs as a donkey and an owl, and finally overwhelms her with his Olympic splendour. Platée is ecstatic to be honoured in this way and enthusiastically falls for Jupiter’s deceitful advances. A magnificent wedding with much dancing, a huge buffet and illustrious guests is arranged. In the meantime, Mercure and Cithéron have discreetly let Juno know about her husband’s alleged new affair. Just before the mock wedding she bursts in on the ceremony and furiously tears the veil from the face of the supposed bride. But at the sight of Platée’s ugliness Juno cannot help laughing at her own blind jealousy, and she patches up her differences with Jupiter. Fine weather returns to Earth at last and Cithéron and Jupiter are being left in peace. Only Platée remains sitting lonely and humiliated in her marsh as all the gods return to Olympus.
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s ballet bouffon Platée is structured as if it were a tragédie, a serious French opera: it consists of a prologue, three acts with many dance sequences, and its plot is taken from ancient mythology. The occasion for which it was written would have demanded a serious piece, albeit one with a happy ending: Rameau wrote the opera for the wedding of the heir to the French throne in Versailles in March 1745. This was to be one of the last major festivities of the Ancien Régime. But Platée is not an opera that aims to romanticise or glorify courtly society. Rather, it is an artful satire on human vanities and arrogant condescension. So it is no wonder that this plot, dealing as it does with an ugly, narcissistic marsh nymph – sung by a tenor in drag – was not particularly well received in Versailles. It was not until series of performances were given for non-noble audiences in Paris in 1749 that Platée became one of Rameau’s most successful works. The audience revelled in the elegantly composed, subtly comic music and the playful use of language and sounds such as the croaking of the frogs in the marsh and the braying of Jupiter as a donkey. But it is not just the raucous burlesque elements that make the work such a success: Rameau portrays the awkward, provincial Platée, who dreams of a life of glamour, not just as foolish and deserving of humiliation, but also shows her distress when she becomes the butt of heartless laughter and derision, and how pitiable the abrupt end of her unexpected rise is. So this ballet bouffon does have a serious message after all, when at its seemingly comic conclusion the egocentric cold-heartedness of the rich, powerful and beautiful is shown to be more worthy of censure than the marsh nymph’s simple-minded vanity. In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who otherwise had little regard for Rameau, hailed Platée as “the best musical play ever to be heard in our theatres.” In Robert Carsen’s 2014 production the mythological events take place in the world of Parisian haute couture and Jupiter is portrayed as the fashion god Karl Lagerfeld – who has now really been transported up to Olympus. An ingeniously apt transposition of this satirical opera into the modern day.