La Grande Ecurie, Versailles.
On March 31, 1745, Jean-Philippe Rameau's comic opera Platée premiered
at Versailles as part of the festivities held for the wedding of Louis, the
Dauphin, to Maria Theresa of Spain. The opera was performed at La Grande
Ecurie — a large and ornate structure that was actually the stables for
horses that Louis XV kept for visitors but which had the great advantage
of having a large courtyard that could host the performance of an opera,
as well as the many tables for dinner guests.
Platée is technically of the form ballet bouffon. The term refers to the fact
that originally comic opera grew out of the ballet, to which in the late
17th century comic interludes or vocal numbers were added. Nevertheless
comedy had been dismissed by Lully, and by Rameau's day it was still
something of a rarity. Thus Platée can arguably be called the first great
comic opera. Ballet bouffon eventually led to opera buffa and the operas
But unlike the later opera buffa, Rameau's comic operas still centered
around the classical themes and mythology that were loved by Age of
Reason audiences in more dramatic operas (opera seria). The base libretto
was written by Jacques Autreau, the rights to which were purchased by
Rameau and the libretto modified by d'Orville. In fact it seems that
Rameau took great care with the libretto.
Besides the normal cast of gods and goddesses, the opera contains a
large number of subsidiary parts such as nymphs, aquilons, satyrs and
others which function as the ballet or chorus parts of the opera, or
sometimes both. The opera also calls for animal and other sounds from
nature as well as the deus ex machina typical of the day. Particularly
noteworthy is the famous chorus of frogs, where Platée's line "Quoi?
Quoi?" is made in the chorus to resemble croaking frogs. That type of
link between text and music seems to be particularly what Rameau was
wanting to extend from the libretto.
It is impossible to consider Platée, like other works of culture of the
day, as existing apart from the French Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment
the chief goddess was Reason. It was by reason that we come to know the
world and even the Creator. But goddess Reason also had a flip side —
the goddess Folly. Reason may guide us, but Folly all too often sways us.
In Platée the extraordinary step is taken to introduce the character of Folly
late in the opera in Act II. I know of no other opera that introduces a
central role so late. But the late inclusion makes perfect sense, coming
as it does when Jupiter is getting ready to celebrate his sham wedding to
the water nymph Platée in order to make his wife Juno jealous.
Although Platée later achieved high critical acclaim, at the premier the
opera was criticized for its libretto — which must have cut Rameau to
the quick given the great pains he took with it. But how an audience in
1745 may have interpreted the libretto is not necessarily how we would
interpret it today.
Gods, who hold the Universe in your hands,
See how the Elements declare war on us.
If there be any guilty mortals
Then punish them with thunder,
And restore to the Earth
The calm and gentleness of its earliest destiny.
(Act I, Scene I)
Considering what we humans have done to our environment since Rameau's
day, it would be impossible not to deconstruct those lines in a way much
different than 18th century audiences. Reason may still be with us; but
Folly as well.
(Click on Rameau's photo to play the track.)