Who are we to judge our own, or anyone else’s place in the world?
JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683–1764)
SUITE FROM PLATÉE
Jean-Philippe Rameau is, for me, the greatest composer of dance music up until Tchaikovsky and certainly Stravinsky. His endless invention and boundless imagination for rhythm, harmony and melody have stood the test of time.
In comparison with so much other Baroque music from the mid-eighteenth century, Rameau sounds even to our ears incredibly modern. To think his contemporaries included Bach and Handel is almost inconceivable.
Although Rameau spent the first half of his professional life as a published music theorist, he later turned to composing and produced over 20 opéra-ballets, theatrical works that were at least as much about dance as they were about singing.
Tonight, we will hear a selection of some of his finest dances that form part of Platée. They are almost always composed in pairs, usually with one in a major key and the other in the same minor key, for example, D major and D minor. All exhibit both elegance and playfulness, sophistication and irreverence.
Like many Baroque composers, Rameau was also a master at depicting the natural world, which often made an evocative appearance in his operas to advance a storyline or to influence the plot. The ‘Orage’ (Storm) which closes the Suite starts with the slow patter of the first few raindrops, preceding a sudden downpour, complete with thunder and lightning.
© Benjamin Bayl, 2022
FROGS AND GODS
An unlikely tale that dares ask what it is to be human.
We’ll never know Rameau’s true intentions in composing an opera about an ugly marsh-nymph who ﬁnds herself the bride in a mock wedding. It sounds like an unlikely premise for an opera – especially one that’s been described as ‘one of the greatest operas of the eighteenth century.’ Clearly Platée is no ordinary work.
In the great canon of music for the theatre, this is the ﬁrst time in opera that the composer invites the audience in as a character. From Jacque Autreau’s epic poem of the same name, Rameau and his librettist le Valois d’Orville crafted a story which truly holds a mirror up to us: What do we think of ourselves? Who are we to judge our own, or anyone else’s place in the world? It’s an opera that raises so many questions, and offers beguilingly few complete answers.
No spoilers here, but to give you a sense of the overall work: the water nymph Platée is irresistibly ugly. Jupiter is sick of being scolded by Juno, his jealous wife. Mercury comes up with a suggestion about how to cure Juno of her jealousy: Jupiter will pretend to fall in love with the ‘preposterously unlikely’ water nymph. Trouble is, Platée is pretty convinced that Jupiter really is in love with her, and that marriage is inevitable. From this premise unravels a chain of misunderstandings, which reveal the mockery of the gods and ultimate humiliation of the swamp frog.
In this day and age of libel and litigation, Platée would likely never have been written; at least, not for the occasion at which it was ﬁrst performed: the wedding festivities in 1745 of the French Dauphin and the Infanta of Spain, Maria Theresa. She was no oil painting. Rameau’s opera might easily have been interpreted as mocking its dedicatees, making a comparison between the Infanta and the poor, unsuitable frogwoman.
Fortunately, there was enough other entertainment on offer that night in the court of Versailles – another comedy-ballet by Rameau, plus works by Lully and other contemporaries.
There was at least one person in the audience who wasn’t fooled: the great playwright Voltaire. He reported Platée as ‘the most detestable show I have ever seen or heard.’
But he was the lone ranger in holding that view – shortly after Platée’s premiere, Rameau was appointed ‘Composer in the King’s Music Chamber.’ It seems others were impressed by Rameau’s unfailing musical inventiveness, his mastery of integration of ballet movements into the dramatic fabric of his opera, and his sheer talent for comic opera.
© Genevieve Lang, 2022
Adapted from an article published by Pinchgut Opera on 8 October 2021