A frog and his throat

Platee The Royal Opera, Barbican Theatre
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Ivell, the red-liveried, gold-braided head commissionaire, famous for his star TV appearances in The House, looked a little out of place on Monday in the Barbican's more matter-of-fact interior. But there he stood, smiling, in the foyer, suavely greeting old friends who were grateful for a familiar face in a strange venue. The lavish leg-room and clean sightlines must have been strange too, after a lifetime of spending pounds 100- plus for an uninterrupted view of the back of someone's head.

While the Royal Ballet's audience renews its acquaintance with old favourites, the Opera has a flush of new productions, including Platee, its first stab at Jean-Philippe Rameau, premiered last month at the Edinburgh Festival. Written in 1745, Platee was first performed at Versailles to celebrate the marriage of the Dauphin with Maria Teresa of Spain - an odd choice, given its tragi-comic tale of how a god becomes engaged to a Swamp Thing in order to teach his jealous wife a lesson. Rameau parodies the court entertainments of the time: instead of the usual vocal approximation of birdsong, we get ducks quacking ("Quoi? Moi? Toi. Pourquoi?"). The typical musical arrangements for the arrival of muse or deity are drily commented upon in the libretto itself: "New harmony apparently announces the arrival of Thalie."

This subversive mood has been expanded upon in the present staging by Mark Morris, which opens in a New York bar. A gay biker, a bartender, a drunk and sundry barflies variously representing a satyr, Bacchus, Thespis and other mainstays of baroque opera, decide to put on a show demonstrating that sexual folly is common to both men and gods. Adrianne Lobel's sets then transfer the scene to a fishtank, complete with paddling pool, in which the amphibious Platee holds court. Morris's dancers, dressed with psychedelic exuberance by Isaac Mizrahi, waddle and flap about aquatically to the dance measures dotted throughout the score. When required, they provide a pantomime horse, copulating tortoises and giant grass-snakes; in Act 3 they are dressed variously as buttock-slapping, nipple-ringed satyrs and graceless Graces to lampoon the nuptials of poor dear Platee.

Anyone who has ever seen Morris before will recognise the trademark chains of movement, the unashamed gaiety and merriment of his dancers and his delirious enjoyment of music. Anyone seeing his work for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about. Rameau's music for the dances is ravishingly sweet but deliberately conventional and Morris seems to highlight this by dancing insistently on the beat which can prove a little unexciting at times.

It is, in any case, hard to take your eyes off Jean-Paul Fouchecourt's magnificent Platee, who singlehandedly puts the "tragi" back into the tragi-comedy. Made hideous to the point of misogyny by Mizrahi's droopy rubber breasts, buttocks and belly, yet sporting a gorgeous smile beneath her crest of green rubber nodules, Platee transcends her own ugliness with a heart as big as the swamp and the voice of a siren. As operatic first nights go, the applause was not the usual seat-wetting ovation, but they cheered Fouchecourt to the rafters and he held the house in the palm of his little green flipper.

In rep to 10 Oct. Booking: 0171-304 4000

Louise Levene

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