Rameau was either a brave musician or a fool; a work that might easily be interpreted as a mockery of its dedicatees could easily have been the undoing of its creator. Platée was composed for the wedding celebration of the French Dauphin and the Infanta of Spain, Maria Theresa, in 1745. Maria Theresa was almost universally recognized as unattractive; the primary character of Platée, who happens to be the bride in a mock wedding, is a vain, ugly marsh-nymph. Suprisingly, however, the possible comparison between the plot of the opera and the occasion for which it was composed drew little, if any, contemporary notice, and certainly no criticism; in fact, Rameau was shortly thereafter appointed "Composer in the King's Music Chamber."
In February 1749, Platée began a successful run of public performances at the Académie Royale de Musique. The Paris Opéra staged the work in 1750 with Bellot de Sauvot's revised libretto, and again 1754, after which only the Prologue appeared on concert programs. By 1773, Platée had disappeared from both stage and concert hall, not to be revived until the twentieth century.
Rameau fashioned the libretto himself (with the help of Le Valois d'Orville) from Jacque Autreau's epic poem, Platée, or the Jealousy of Juno. D'Orville's primary task was to augment the comic elements of the story. Described as a comédie-lyrique, Platée is an amalgam of varied styles and forms infused with an element of burlesque. Rameau and d'Orville determined that the comic characters would dress as babies and the serious ones as Greek philosophers. To increase the comic effect, the principal female character, Platée, was played by the leading countertenor of the time, Pierre Jelyotte. Onomatopoeic effects abound, most notably in Platée's "dis done pourquoi? Quoi? Quoi?" from the fourth scene of Act One. Here, the repeated, single-syllable words deliberately evoke the croaking of frogs, as do the squawking oboes. Rameau illustrates Platée's lively nature through verbal non sequiturs accompanied by shifts in rhythmic emphasis and rising arpeggios. Sound effects and their integration into the story also play a major role in producing a comic atmosphere. In the third scene of Act Two, Jupiter appears to Platée as a donkey, and she mistakes his braying -- conveyed by the orchestra -- as sighs of love. At this, however, Jupiter turns into in owl and flies off, chased by birds as the orchestra produces the sounds of various feathered animals.
Music, too, is subject to mockery in Act Three, Scene Three, in which a test of Platée's patience is set to a lengthy Chaconne; it draws on earlier musical elements of the opera, and includes passages with almost unbearably long soundings of a single chord. The score is filled with instructions to the orchestra regarding unusual techniques, including a representation of tears on the violin produced by sliding the finger on the fingerboard to produce quarter-tones.
Rameau's approach to musical content and structure is also adventurous; some sections go so far as to be seemingly formless, most peculiarly the "duet" in Act Three, Scene Eight, which spins out without boundaries or landmarks. Rameau's overture, in a slow-fast format, is more than just a curtain raiser; it contains passages that appear in the opera. Platée's aria, "Je m'attendris," from the fourth scene of Act One, features numerous and unpredictable tempo changes and large, humorous leaps in the voice part. Throughout the work, the boundary between recitative and aria is constantly blurred.