Platée: A hugely enjoyable Love Island-style production that’s exactly what this cruel story deserves

Platée, at Garsington Opera
Platée, at Garsington Opera - Alastair Muir

Comic opera can be cruel, but it is hard to think of any that is quite so brutal as Rameau’s Platée, which opened Garsington Opera’s season on Wednesday night. At the end, there’s not a crumb of comfort for the vain and strange-looking “marsh-nymph” Platée, who lives among the frogs and is more than a bit frog-like herself. She’s convinced by a bunch of scheming Olympian gods that she has caught the eye of Jupiter, no less. The poor creature is even induced to enter a mock marriage with him, so that Jupiter’s wife Juno can witness the whole farcical procedure and be cured – finally – of her jealousy of every passing nymph.

It’s an unpleasant tale, but I have to say that Garsington Opera’s new production is so exuberant and stylishly done I enjoyed it hugely, albeit with a tinge of guilt. Rather than softening the sexism, the director Lisa Muller ramps it up gleefully, by imagining the opera as a particularly camp and vulgar episode of Love Island. Palm trees and a swimming pool greet the eye, along with amusingly camp videos, courtesy of “Olympus TV”.

The gods of comedy and satire are reimagined as harassed producers in search of couples for the next episode, the chorus as their armies of sycophantic helpers with clipboards who serve coffee in takeaway cups to their masters, rather than wine. Among them are the marsh-nymphs, spoiled beach-babes who in Rebecca Howell’s choreography preen and prance as if to the manner born.

Into all this tawdry glamour steps Samuel Boden as Platée, ridiculous in green bathing-suit, green wig and frog-flippers. It’s a hugely taxing part composed for the high, virtuoso tenor that was a speciality of French opera, which Boden projects with considerable grace and musical sensitivity – even while being forced to join in the beach antics with the marsh-nymphs, at one point even walking on his hands. Not many French Baroque tenors could pull that off.

Pushing against all this riotous vulgarity is the music, which is hugely inventive and often funny – Baroque oboes can do a convincing frog-croak – but also has a vein of pathos and mystery. The excellent English Concert conducted by Paul Agnew bring out that mystery, and the fabulous rhythmic energy. They, the rich-voiced Garsington Chorus, and indeed everyone on stage evoke that special French Baroque quality, pliant and tender as well as courtly.

Among the solo roles, Holly Brown as the scheming Muse of Comedy stand out for the delicate way she catches Rameau’s idiom. Tenor Robert Brown and bass Robert McGovern as Comedy and Satire are less delicate but exuberantly comic, clutching each other in ecstasies at their own cleverness. Annabel Kennedy is splendidly angry as Juno, but she’s soon mollified when she realises Platée is no rival. At the end, she soars up to TV stardom with her gold-suited husband, while Platée simply disappears. Though it misses the pathos in the music, one can’t help feeling this riotously enjoyable but heartless production is exactly what the story deserves.

Until June 30;