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Pinchgut Opera/Brett Boardman

Platée reigns supreme on the Sydney operatic stage

Review: Platée, directed by Neil Armfiled, Pinchgut Opera

French master composer and theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) created the opera Platée for the wedding of Louis, Dauphin of France, son of King Louis XV of France, and the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain.

The work challenged the traditional French opera of the time, the tragédie lyrique by subverting Greek mythological characters and infusing 18th century comédie lyrique with dramatic integrity between text and music, harmonic sophistication and comic grandeur.

The naïve ugly swamp queen Platée (Kanen Breen) falls for the god Jupiter (Peter Coleman-Wright), who proposes to wed her to get into the good books of his jealous wife Juno (Cheryl Barker).

Steering the action are none other than a satyr and the king of Greece, Cithéron (Adrian Tamburini); the god of mockery and scorn, Momus (David Greco); the inventor of comedy, Thespis (Nicholas Jones); the messenger of the gods, Mercury (Jones), and Love and Madness (Cathy-Di Zhang). These characters set out in the prologue to “use laughter to teach these humans a lesson”.

Platée was well-received in Versailles in 1745 by both audience and critics, but has only been re-staged sporadically, mostly in festival programs in Europe and the United States. The last productions date from 2014 in both Paris and Vienna. This is the opera’s first ever staging in Australia

A stunning Australian cast

Tragedy makes us cry and feel empathy while comedy excites the mind’s inquisitiveness. Comedy exposes the truth and offers a space where we feel safe to not take ourselves too seriously so we can laugh at our own ignorance and transform.

Led by Erin Helyard (artistic director, conductor and harpsichord) and Neil Armfield (director), Pinchgut’s Australian production team blends the historically informed baroque sound with modern visual cues.

After-party clutter and hangovers, the projection of stage action (Sean Bacon) and wedding cake transformations (cake design by Jemima Snars), thunder and lightning effects (sound design by Alexander Berlage), and contemporary moves (choreography by Shannon Burns) swirl into a hotchpotch of plot twists that render Platée undone.

Production image
Platee blends baroque music with contemporary staging. Pinchgut Opera/Brett Boardman

Performing in drag, Kanen Breen’s Platée fuses cabaret, burlesque and an immense physicality. She is sexy, frivolous, ridiculous, pitiful and always entertaining.

The most touching aspect of Breen’s characterisation is the vulnerability of the character. His Platée is in constant physical movement, and his tenor voice displays a rich palette of colours, including a funny falsetto.

Read more: Falsetto: The enduring love affair with the soaring male voice

Jones, Tamburini and Greco deliver solid performances vocally and histrionically.

Chloe Lankshear sings beautifully and sincerely the obbligato air Soleil, fuis de ces lieu (Oh sun, flee this space), and performing both Love and Madness, Cathy-Di Zhang, has a commanding vocal and physical presence.

Production image
Cathy Di Zhang has a commanding presence. Pinchgut Opera/Brett Boardman

Beloved Australian opera singers Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright grace the stage dressed as bride and groom to perform the virtues of marital commitment and fortitude. Coleman-Wright’s rendition of Jupiter’s opening air Aquilons trop audacieux (North wind, you are too bold) delights with a smooth and light tone throughout the range enhanced by an acute attentiveness to the meaning of the words and nuance of French pronunciation.

Barker’s charisma does not require much time on stage to conquer the audience as the goddess who protects the state, children and marriage.

Magical music

Helyard plays the harpsichord and conducts his orchestra, all dressed in white. Facing the audience, he spins Rameau’s music with abandon and holds the pulse of the audience’s emotions in his palm.

Pinchgut’s historical opera revivals have a world-class reputation for their exquisite musical interpretations. The Orchestra of the Antipodes’s baroque specialists give the audience vigorous and wide-ranging instrumental timbres and dance rhythms, honouring the subtleties of Rameau’s score. The solution to infuse the visual narrative with contemporary and local cultural clichés amuses with the ridicule of the familiar and keeps us on our toes.

The Cantillation Chorus has the most gorgeous sound and executes the force of Rameau’s choral writing to perfection. But it is unfortunate they are not trained actors, as their characterisations don’t stand up to their musical performances.

On their 20th anniversary, Pinchgut Opera has delivered another Australian premiere of a baroque gem in unprecedented trying circumstances. The arts heal the soul and Pinchgut’s storytellers and singers have done it again.

Platée is at City Recital Hall, Sydney, until December 8.

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