Celebrated Australian director Neil Armfield makes his Pinchgut debut in a deliciously twisted comedy by one of the greatest French baroque composers. Rameau clearly enjoyed himself composing this one-of-a-kind comédie lyrique, for the marriage of the Dauphin Louis XV to the Princess Maria Teresa of Spain – reputedly a woman of very little beauty – telling the story of the irresistibly outlandish marsh nymph Platée being tricked into believing that Jupiter is in love and wants to marry her.
Rameau takes aim at the very nature of French opera itself, turning tradition on its head with music of exceptional brilliance and wit, and sweeping away the studied elegance of set-piece ballets with ravishing melodies and striking shifts of mood and colour. Prepare to be utterly enchanted!
From an unlikely tale, comes an even unlikelier life lesson...
We’ll never know Rameau’s true intentions in composing an opera about an outlandish marsh-nymph who finds herself the bride in a mock wedding. It’s sounds like an unlikely premise for an opera which Erin Helyard gives an even more unlikely description: ‘It’s one of the greatest operas of the 18th century.’ Clearly Platée is no ordinary work.
Rameau rewrote the rules for opera in the mid-18th French century. And not everyone was happy about it.
When Rameau finally got around to writing his first opera at age 50, Hippolyte et Aricie, it was more than a mere zephyr signalling the winds of change through French music. ‘There is enough music in this opera to make 10 of them,’ declared fellow composer André Campra, on hearing Rameau’s operatic debut. ‘This man will eclipse us all.’ Parisian audiences were startled by the colour, melodic heartache and formal weirdness of what they heard. Up to that point, Rameau had been a music theorist – nicknamed the ‘Isaac Newton of Music’ for his attempts to derive universal harmonic principles from natural causes – and a composer of instrumental works, motets and cantatas. Threatened by these unfamiliar harmonies, some tried to dismiss him as a mere mathematician, others shook their fists at this ‘perpetual witchery’. But there was an enlightened – and excited – pocket of audience who celebrated this new dramatic breadth and boldness.
It was a rich and fruitful late-flowering; Rameau would focus almost exclusively on works for the theatre for the next 30 years, producing an average of one per year. Another challenge to the discerning French public – whose preference was for clearly defined genres and the comfort of the familiar which had been supplied by Lully for so many years – was Rameau’s predilection for inventing new forms. Tragédie en musique (as Castor & Pollux from 1737 was described), was acceptable. Opéra-ballet (Les Indes galantes of 1735) was similarly tolerated; in fact, the sheer quantity of ballet music in French baroque opera was a celebrated point of distinction when compared with its Italian or German counterparts. But comédie-ballet and its blend of spoken word with interludes containing dance and music, let alone the comédie lyrique, a term entirely invented by Rameau for Platée from 1745 – these were genre-bending, definition-defying works that challenged even the earliest of adopters.
Campra’s prophecy that Rameau would outshine all his contemporaries didn’t quite come to pass – despite his productive if uneven composing life, Rameau’s music had fallen out of favour by the end of his life and languished until well into the late 20th century.