Let’s All Make Fun of the Deformed and Unfortunate! (An Artistic Experience)

by wjw on August 13, 2007

This was our weekend for the opera. We went to Santa Fe for two nights and stayed in Gene and Holly Bostwick’s lovely casita. The three-room guest house is well-equipped with beds and drinks and tidbits installed in a small fridge, but it lacks cooling. As the interior temperatures approached 90 degrees, we reflected that, at least in the summertime, Gene and Holly will have no problem with guests outstaying their welcome.

The Santa Fe Opera has been perched on a hill above the town for over fifty years now, ever since founder John Crosby wandered through the area on horseback with a sound engineer, randomly firing a rifle in order to test acoustics. Being a creation of rich and sophisticated Easterners, historically the opera has had very little to do with the state or with Santa Fe, and instead been a kind of alien preserve of wealth and privilege. Lately they’ve been doing more outreach, possibly because Santa Fe itself has become a toy of rich people from out of state.

On the night of La Bohème we had a tailgate party in the parking lot. This is one of the joys of the Santa Fe opera: you can set down a table with white linen, and sit watching the sunset amid spectacular southwestern scenery, drinking wine and eating whatever lovely food items you brought with you. Pat Rogers even brought a spectacular silver candelabra. Our dejeuner sur le rocks was interrupted by a brief shower— a hazard of the season— but we discovered that sushi goes rather well with turmeric nan, chardonnay, and imported cheese.

Otherwise La Bohème was La Bohème. Wonderfully sung and handsomely staged, it’s still a play about a woman whose death takes two hours and sixteen minutes (I counted). I have seen it twice now, and have no need to see it again. But then I am, as we know, a Soulless Beast.

Our other opera was Rameau’s Platée, a baroque curiosity from Louis XV’s court composer. I’d never seen a baroque opera before, and didn’t know what to expect. Certainly I didn’t expect this.

There is no curtain at the Santa Fe Opera, so instead we discovered a wooden wall built across the stage. When this lumbered open, it revealed a theater facing the theater watching the theater. Across several seats lies Thespis, Inventor of Comedy, passed out from drink. Ushers appear and begin seating an audience, who watches the audience watching them. The ushers get more inventive and begin shifting the audience around, often with bizarre and unlikely body movement, which the audience is obliged to copy. Hilarity ensues.

Eventually a sort of a story gets under way, in which Thespis, Momus, Thalie (the Muse of Comedy), and Cupid agree to stage a comic play about the loves of Jupiter and the jealousy of Juno. One doesn’t come to an opera to see sopranos in bikinis, but the blonde Cupid was much appreciated anyway, and kept me from falling asleep after my heavy meal. Before I was finished feasting my eyes, the wooden wall lumbered, back into place, scenery is shifted about, and the play began.

We’re back in the theater, except that it’s been somewhat trashed, some seats are missing, and there’s green slime everywhere. We are in a swamp, the home of Platée, a homely swamp-nymph, who is sung by a tenor in drag.

Here’s the plot, such as it is: Juno is in a jealous rage, probably for good reason. Mercury comes up with the notion to have Jupiter feign love for the homely and lovelorn Platée, to whom he will offer marriage. Juno will storm in at the critical moment, get one look at Platée, and be convinced that her jealousy was baseless. “And then we just wait for the happy ending,” Mercury explains hopefully.

And that’s more or less what happens. Jupiter descends in a literal deus ex machina, convinces Platée he’s in love with her, and the rest of the play is a series of parodic celebrations of the fake nuptials. Everyone is in on the joke but Platée and her Chorus of Frogs (who were probably happy for the work, being unemployed since the time of Aristophanes).

The entire production is a celebration of the series of vicious, cruel pranks played on Platée, whose only sin is to be homely and a bit over-optimistic about her prospects for love. It must have been great fun, back in the day, for Louis XV and his court of aristocrats to make fun of an unsophisticated provincial trying to better herself, and doubtless le Vicomte Apres-moi-le-Deluge felt that the moral order had been restored when the trick was revealed and Platée was stomped back into the slime from whence she came.

This play is, ethically speaking, totally evil! It’s just like high school!

Imagine my own moral unease when I realized I was enjoying myself.

Historians and musicologists argue about whether Platée is opera bouffe, ballet comique, or ballet lyrique. In any case, there is more dancing than singing. And in this production, the dancing isn’t merely comique, but riotously funny. The Chorus of Frogs are delightful. There are not one but two travesti-ballets, the last of which features the Three Graces, hearty young men in bras and jockey shorts, who do a dance and a series of intricate allemandes, all while holding hands. (I noticed there were a lot of children in the audience, and I wonder if their parents had known they were going to be witnessing quite so much cross-dressing.)

The music for one of the ballets was quite dull, but the production partly made up for it by having much of the cast, and some of the dancers, fall asleep. Another production featured what I can only describe as the Domestic Abuse Ballet, wherein loving couples slapped, pummeled, kicked, and strangled each other throughout. The corps de ballet got quite a workout in this one.

Go for the comedy, but note that the moral tone makes one yearn for revolution by guillotine.

Kathleen August 13, 2007 at 11:15 pm

Kathy’s comments: In Platee, Jupiter and Juno were both garbed all in sparkly violet, looking rather like anime characters. We took a backstage tour on Saturday afternoon, passing through the wig shop on the way. The collection of wigs included two purple ones, which I recognized as Jupiter and Juno’s.

The Santa Fe Opera changes scenes by lowering the sets on a GIGANTIC elevator. They go two stories down, where they are switched out for the sets for the next opera. All the stuff at SFO is stored below the stage, since there are virtually no wings on the same level as the stage.

Backstage and just outside of the building, there was a little gnome garden, and right next to it a sign “Parking for Clergy.” I wondered what kind of clergy the gnomes required, or, for that matter, the opera singers.

Rebecca August 14, 2007 at 12:26 am

Thanks a bunch for the review of Platee, WJW. I was curious about it and rather wished that the Taos Toolbox schedule had allowed me to see it rather than another Boheme. (But didn’t you love that slinky Musetta in her red dress in Act II?) And now I am sorry to have missed the Chorus of Frogs.

qtera31 August 14, 2007 at 5:30 pm

Wow – Now I REALLY want to see Platee! You had me with – “green slime everywhere. We are in a swamp “ And – “hearty young men in bras and jockey shorts, who do a dance and a series of intricate allemandes, all while holding hands.” This IS my kind of entertainment to be sure. La Boheme is was good but…..no blond cupids in bikinis.

dubjay August 14, 2007 at 9:08 pm

Musetta was the highlight of Boheme, to be sure. Added a bit of Lively Sitcom to the Grand Tragedy that was going on elsewhere.

The staging of Platee was based on a production at the Paris Opera a few years ago, from which I drew the YouTube video clips.

David August 20, 2007 at 3:59 am

I love the idea of a tailgate party for La Boheme.

erika October 29, 2007 at 1:53 am

um the ‘clergy’ mentioned in the first comment is the props master. he’s also recently been ordained as a priest. i’ve worked there for the past six seasons.

dubjay October 29, 2007 at 4:36 am

Oh. Cool.

I’m an ordained minister myself, and wondered if I could park there.

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