These qualities are abundant his operas, which transcend stereotypes of static opera seria through their descriptive orchestral writing, their lyrical airs, and a style of recitative that follows the natural flow and music of the French language, without devolving into dry recitation.
Rameau was 50 when his first opÈra tragique (tragic opera), Hippolyte et Aricie, debuted on the stage of the AcadÈmie Royale de Musique in 1733. With this work, Rameau was treading on familiar operatic ground, but many in the audience were baffled by Rameauís daring realization of opÈra tragique, a genre established by the still-beloved Lully (1632-1687). Les Indes galantes (1735) belongs to a different operatic genre, the opÈra-ballet, which featured independentóbut loosely connectedóplots separated into several entrÈes. As the genreís name suggests, dance played an important part in the opÈra-ballet, and Les Indes galantes is no exception; each entrÈe closes with a divertissement, a collection of dance movements and dance songs that tie into the plot of the entrÈe.
At its premiere in 1735, Les Indes galantes consisted of a prologue and three entrÈes: ìLe Turc gÈnÈreuxî (The Generous Turk), ìLes Incas du PÈrouî (The Incas of Peru), and ìLes Fleursî (The Flowers); soon after the premiere, Rameau added a fourth entrÈe, ìLes Sauvagesî (The Savages). Each entrÈe is set in a different exotic locationóTurkey, Peru, Persia, and America. The librettist, Louis Fuzelier, indicated the sources of inspiration for these locales in his published preface to the libretto: The plot of ìLe Turc gÈnÈreuxî was inspired by a news report in the journal Mercure de France, while both ìLes Incas du PÈrouî and ìLes Fleursî reflect popular contemporary travel literature. The source of the setting of ìLes Sauvagesî is a 1725 visit to Paris by two native Americans from Franceís new colony in Louisiana; Rameauís set of harpsichord pieces entitled Les Sauvages were inspired by the dances performed by the two visitors, and served as the basis for the divertissement of the final entrÈe of Les Indes galantes. The entrÈes are strung loosely together by a common thread introduced in the Prologue, in which the HÈbÈ, the goddess of youth, laments the seduction of idle youths by Bellone, the goddess of war, who promises them glory in battle. HÈbÈ calls on Cupid to send his winged followers throughout the world to search for true love.
The musical performances in this production are superbóeverything that one can expect from Les Arts Florissants and its director, William Christie. The soloists all have clear, agile voices, and are accomplished actors. In particular, the air ìViens, hymen, viens míunir au vainqueur que jíadoreî (Come, Hymen, to unite me with the conqueror whom I love) in ìLes Incas du PÈrouî and the quartet ìTendre amour, que pour nous ta chaÓneî (Tender love, may you enchain us) are meltingly lovely.
On the other hand, the staging by Andrei Serban is uneven. Certainly the genre of opÈra-ballet is lighter than opÈra tragique, but the director seems determined to find humor everywhere, from a ìgoddessî of war in drag, to a slinky Indian maiden singing of the ìinnocenceî of love. To my mind, only the mistaken identity in the plot of the Persian entrÈe (ìLes Fleursî) is clearly humorous, as it foreshadows comic theatrical devices that came to fruition in Mozartís Cosi fan tutte. The directorís stated goal was to provide an imaginative feast for the eyes, but the quest for visual brilliance and comedy often threatens to descend into meaningless antics. Serban does not seem comfortable with letting the music carry the action; a number of gentle airs are overshadowed by stage business that seems to have no purpose, from a simple procession of people in the background, to a recurring acrobatic act that culminates in the pair dangling from the fly space ‡ la Cirque du Soliel. The use of supernumeraries in large head-masks was probably meant to be whimsical, but to me the human minarets populating ìLe turc gÈnÈreux,î the dancers wearing huge flower pots in ìLes Fleurs,î and the life-size Hopi Kachina dolls cavorting in ìLes Sauvagesî were just silly.
Because of the large amount of music for dance in the opÈra-ballet, the choreographer plays an important role in the staging, but Blanca Li is as inconsistent as the director. In the prologue, the dancersí steps are clearly based on authentic Baroque dance, but the choreographer has inserted odd body and arm positions that come straight out of modern classical dance. Although most of the dance seems in the style of Martha Graham, we see sailors executing moves from On the Town in ìLe turc gÈnÈrouxî and flower pots dancing the Charleston and the ìSwimî in ìLes Fleurs.î On the whole, the director does not seem to give Rameau enough credit to be able to hold the audience through the music, but feels compelled to keep his audience visually entertained instead.
Editor, Journal of Musicological Research
University of Northern Colorado
image_description=Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Indes galantes
product_title=Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Indes galantes
Opera in 5 Acts. Sung in French
product_by=Danielle de Niese, Anna Maria Panzarella, Paul Agnew, Nathan Berg, JaÎl Azzaretti, Richard Croft, GaÎle Le Roi, Malin Hartelius, Nicolas Rivenq, Patricia Petibon. Les Arts Florissants Orchestra and Chorus, William Christie (cond.). From the OpÈra National de Paris, 2003
product_id=Opus Arte OA 0923 D [DVD]