Rameau (Les) Indes galantes
Rameau was known to the Parisians mainly as a theorist, and he was 50 when he burst on the operatic scene with Hippolyte et Aricie. His second work for the stage, after the abortive Samson, was very different: in its final form, Les Indes galantes consists of a prologue and four entrées, three of the latter depicting Europeans in exotic places. As in Mozart’s Die Entführung, there is an implication that the civilisation of the ‘Indies’ is equal, and even superior, to that of the supposedly enlightened Europeans.
In ‘Le turc généreux’, for example, Emilie twice calls Osman a barbarian; but when she is unexpectedly reunited with her lover Valère the barbarian releases both from captivity. And in ‘Les sauvages’, Zima rejects her French and Spanish suitors in favour of the noble savage Adario. In between come ‘Les Incas de Pérou’, another three-hander, and ‘Les fleurs’, where four lovers overcome problems of identity before taking part in a festival of flowers. The prologue features bewigged dancers in 18th-century costume but this is no recreation of contemporary practice. Here, a minaret walks across the stage; there, a herd of bison join in the dance. The production, designs and choreography are an absolute joy. The singers include Paul Agnew as Valère, whose lively ‘Hâtez-vous de vous embarquer’ bears a startling resemblance to ‘Scacciata dal suo nido’ from Handel’s Rodelinda of 10 years earlier. Nathan Berg rages eloquently as the villainous Huascar in ‘Les Incas’. Most magnificent is the dance of the pipe of peace: led by Patricia Petibon and Nicolas Rivenq, and joined after the curtain calls by the whole company, it is foot-tappingly memorable.
Les Indes galantes was written in the mid-1730s; Les Paladins dates from 1760, four years before Rameau’s death. The fable by La Fontaine on which it is based, printed in the booklet (bravo, Opus Arte!), was in turn derived from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. A pair of lovers, a guardian, a maid and a gaoler call to mind not only Die Entführung but Il barbiere di Siviglia. With a rather thin plot, Rameau takes the opportunity to parody the conventions of opera, including those of his own tragédies lyriques.
The production is hugely entertaining. José Montalvo makes use of video techniques to dazzle the eye with a variety of metamorphoses: a dancer becomes a butterfly, stone lions come to life, a tiger turns into a wolf, which becomes an elephant. These and similar transformations, Montalvo explains, reflect La Fontaine’s attribution of animal characteristics to the human race.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac and Topi Lehtipuu are credible young lovers, d’Oustrac singing her Act 2 ariette, ‘Je vole, Amour’, with a deeply moving intensity. Sandrine Piau and Laurent Naouri couldn’t be bettered as the secondary pair. Rameau’s orchestration is a delight: a flute to complement Argie’s ariette; piccolos and high horns in Act 3. The sheer exuberance of the performance, recorded at the Châtelet in Paris, makes for a life-enhancing experience.