Platée was written in March 1745 for the wedding in Versailles of the heir to the French throne. This was to be one of the last major festivities of the Ancien Régime. A large-scale tragedy would have suited the event; and although Rameau did construct his work using that template, Platée is an ingenious parody. However, the love intrigue about an ugly and vain water nymph did not meet with much approval in Versailles; indeed, as a romantic, sentimental wedding opera it could hardly have been less appropriate.
Juno causes severe storms to destroy the harvest because, once again, she is angry with Jupiter, her philandering husband and supreme god. But this time her anger is groundless: Jupiter is faithful to her. Mercury and Citheron plan to cure Juno of her unfounded jealousy and devise a plot: in a marsh the ugly nymph Platée lives, who has been pestering Citheron with her unwanted affections. She is told that Jupiter has fallen in love with her. The father of the gods, who is in on the plan, appears to Platée in the form of a donkey, declares his (untrue) love for her and commands a wedding celebration. Juno is lured to the mock wedding. In a fury she tears the veil from the face of the supposed bride. Faced with Platée’s ugliness she cannot help laughing at her own jealousy and patches up her differences with Jupiter. Citheron and Jupiter now have peace and quiet again; only Platée is lonely and humiliated.
In Paris in 1749, Platée immediately became one of Rameau’s most successful works. The audience revelled in the elegantly composed, subtly comic music and the playful use of language and sounds such as the croaking of the frogs in the marsh and the braying of Jupiter as a donkey. Since the mid-twentieth century, Platée has again been the most frequently performed of Rameau’s operas. But it is not just the burlesque elements that make the work such a success; Rameau’s portrayal of Platée’s fate as the butt of heartless laughter and derision is also sympathetic, showing her to be pitiable. By the end our laughter dies on our lips. In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau hailed Platée as “the best musical play ever to be heard in our theatres.”