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Is New York ready for an ugly Baroque swamp nymph?

PARIS (Reuters) - German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is a household name; 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau isn't. But the two have been doing quite well together in a European opera now heading briefly to New York.
/ Source: Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) - German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is a household name; 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau isn't. But the two have been doing quite well together in a European opera now heading briefly to New York.

Two hundred and fifty years after Rameau's death, a revival of his 1745 opera "Platee" about an unsightly swamp nymph who falls for the god Jupiter - dressed in Lagerfeld-like black and cradling a white cat resembling the designer's prized "Choupette" - is to have a one-night stand in the Big Apple this week after successful runs in Vienna and Paris.

Some of Rameau's other musically rich if implausibly plotted operas are also making the rounds of Europe for his anniversary.

"The theatre of the 17th and 18th century has a real harmony with our period, it's very edgy," Canadian director Robert Carsen, who dreamt up the fashionista-themed production of "Platee", said in a telephone interview from Zurich.

Performances of such operas are not unknown in the United States and elsewhere, but Europe, with its keen interest in the period-instrument movement that tries to replicate the sound of old orchestras and ensembles, has embraced them as nowhere else.

The one-off performance by the Paris-based period-instrument group Les Arts Florissants at New York's Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday will be a concert version. It will miss out on the spectacular, fashion-inspired staging at Vienna's Theater an der Wien and Paris' Opera Comique, where it ended a sold-out run on Sunday. But the singers, musicians and dancers will be the same.

In Carsen's production of Rameau's opera, the nymph is sung by an in-drag high-tenor Marcel Beekman. The curtain opened on the bar of the swank Ritz hotel with a stage full of fashion groupies sipping designer cocktails and fooling around with other substances.

It featured a mirrored staircase modeled on the one in the designer Coco Chanel's famous Paris flat - the ultimate space in which to see and be seen. The character of "La Folie" (Madness), who sings the opera's most famous aria, warning Platee that she is deluded if she believes Jupiter really loves her, wore a succession of outfits worthy of Lady Gaga.

Carsen, who set a Verdi "Falstaff" in a blindingly yellow 1950s English kitchen, thinks there is a "false tradition of embalming" opera and expressed regret "New York is not going to see the show which I think New York would have enjoyed a lot".

But he hopes to get "Platee into a costume" for what he views as an opera very much of our time - even if it was first performed at Versailles for the marriage of Louis XV's son.

"It's an absolutely wonderful piece, the music is divine and I mean Rameau is theatre," Carsen said, adding that not a word or note of the original had been changed.

"It's far away from the naturalism or even the realism of 19th-century opera and emotionally it is cooler in some way."


French harpsichordist Christophe Rousset, whose period-instrument band Les Talens Lyriques will stage a Hollywood-themed "Platee" in Strasbourg in June, says that Rameau, who wrote a famous treatise on harmony, was also a great musician, on a par with Bach and an inspiration to Berlioz and Ravel.

For "Platee", Rameau wrote the first known music to deliberately imitate the croaking of amphibians, Rousset said.

"He (Rameau) said at the end of his life that he lost too much time composing music and he should have dedicated more time to theories... but obviously he's a big artist and he created very moving music," Rousset said.

The fact that these operas can fill theatres - albeit sometimes tiny ones - has drawn the attention of opera directors, among them Kasper Holten, director of the Royal Opera in London.

It staged a Francesco Cavalli opera jointly with Shakespeare's Globe in the tiny Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

"It's a genuine collaboration where we learn about each other and we learn from each other," Holten told Reuters about "L'Ormindo", which includes interaction between singers and audience that would never happen at Covent Garden.

Audiences are lapping it up. "Baroque can be comic," French government worker Lionel de Fritsch said after seeing "Platee".

"The music, the satire, the production are not at all out of date," said retiree Dominique Walter. "It is completely modern."

(This story has been refiled to restore dropped text in paragraph 17)

(Additional reporting by Jane Barrett in London; Editing Jeremy Gaunt)