After nearly two years of cancellations and online performing, Pinchgut Opera, Australia’s leading baroque opera company, is preparing for its upcoming show at City Recital Hall. It looks like they’re having fun. Images from rehearsals show the central character sitting on a table, his long legs clad in long, pink vinyl high-heeled boots, hooting with laughter. Next to him is a wedding cake.

Pinchgut Platée

Kanen Breen and Erin Helyard in rehearsals for Platée, Pinchgut Opera. Photo © Jasmin Simmons

Guess the opera.

No, it’s not a Mardi Gras version of The Marriage of Figaro. This is Platée, an 18th-century comic opera with music by revolutionary French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and words by Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville (based on an epic poem by Jacques Autreau). It tells the story of Platée, a fugly water nymph with romantic delusions, who becomes the fall-girl for Jupiter’s plot to defuse his wife Juno’s explosive jealousy. It was composed for the occasion of a royal marriage, that of the Dauphin Louis XV to the (reputedly somewhat plain) Princess Maria Teresa of Spain and first presented at the Palace of Versailles in 1745.

The work delighted audiences and rattled critics in its first outing, confusing them with its tragic architecture – including a philosophical prologue, three acts, two storms and mad scene – overlaid with an absurd and risqué satire on social mores. Rameau revised it for a production in Paris in 1749, and the work was revived several more times before falling into obscurity for over a century.

“It’s a really odd work,” says Erin Helyard, the Artistic Director of Pinchgut Opera, “one of the Enlightenment’s greatest stories. It’s basically the first comic opera.”

Helyard explains how, at the start of the 18th century, Italian performing troupes would serve up one-act romps full of pratfalls and fart jokes as light entertainment between the acts of the great French tragedies.

“When they arrived in Paris in the 1720s it sparked this big debate about the merits of Italian and French music. You could go to the opera and hear a Lully opera and then, in the middle of it, you’d hear this amazing Pergolesi piece of Italian comedy.”

Pierre Jélyotte

Pierre Jélyotte as the nymph Platée, by Charles Antoine Coypel (c. 1745), Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Rameau wrote Platée he was taking a bold step outside of traditional French opera by treating comedy as seriously as tragedy. Instead of exploring the human condition through grand tales of doomed heros, Platée invited audiences to think by making them laugh. For Helyard, the opera is a trailblazer for works like The Marriage of Figaro and Così Fan Tutte, which present the audience with moral and social questions through humour.

Platée, more than any other opera, looks at the consequences of humiliation, of marginalisation, of ridicule, what happens when a joke goes too far, when little lies become big lies,” says Helyard.

He sees it as a bold expose of celebrity culture; of “people in power doing terrible things. It plays into those enlightenment themes of what is truth, and what is make believe. And it also asks what your role is in this, as an audience… You leave the theatre questioning what you’ve just seen and heard.”

Platée premiered in Paris in 1749, but this new production is its Australian premiere. If it is such a touchstone of Baroque opera, why haven’t we heard it before?

One of the reasons, says Helyard, is the challenge of casting the central role. The character of Platée the water nymph was written for Pierre Jélyotte, an extraordinary French actor and singer who collaborated with Rameau in numerous operas, including the 1739 tragedy Dardanus. With his high tenor voice and exuberant stage presence, Jélyotte embraced new dramatic possibilities, including the drag role of Platée. Indeed, there is a portrait of him in the role, cheeks rosy with rouge, flowers in his hair, and a hand on a modestly shielding a voluptuous décolletage.

Kanen Breen

Kanen Breen as Platée for Pinchgut Opera. Photo © Marnya Rothe

Put simply, Platée demands a fearless comic actor who is also a virtuosic singer and game to wear women’s clothing. Someone like Kanen Breen.

“I think Kanen is one of the greatest artists I’ve ever worked with,” says Helyard. ‘He is so musical and full of improvisatory joy. It’s a high tenor role which needs someone who’s got a love of burlesque and parody. It’s like he’s the reincarnation of this amazing tenor.”

Breen is at the centre of a strong cast, which includes Australian soprano Cathy-Di Zhang making her Pinchgut debut as Amour/La Folie and distinguished artists Peter Coleman-Wright and Cheryl Barker in the roles of Jupiter and Juno. Meanwhile, Neil Armfield directs in this, his first collaboration with Pinchgut. It is, essentially, a dream team for the company’s return to the stage.

“For the last two years we’ve adapted and changed but this is our first show that represents the old schedule before COVID. This was always meant to be the highlight of our twentieth year.”

Platée plays at City Recital Hall, Sydney from 1–8 December.

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