Les Indes Galantes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, libretto by Louis Fuzelier
Opera National de Paris
Jean-Philippe Rameau’s most popular work was Les Indes Galantes, an opera ballet, which premièred in Paris in 1735. The subject is love in exotic locations and the amorous characters are Turks, Incas, Persians and North American natives.
The present production, directed by Andrei Serban, choreographed by Blanca Li and designed by Marina Draghici, was performed at Opera National de Paris in 2004 and televised. William Christie conducted Les Arts Floissants orchestra.
Les Indes Galantes consists of a prologue and four acts, each climaxing with a big dance production number. The Baroque integration of music, voice, dance and scenic effects is perfect.
The prologue, an exuberant and extraordinary mixture of the 17th century and the modern, is surreal and wildly over the top. It opens with a confrontation between Bellona (João Fernandes), the goddess of war, and Hebe (Danielle de Niese), the goddess of perpetual youth. Bellona is played as a pantomime drag queen. Hebe, who wants peace and love, is a soubrette.
The prologue is followed by a delightfully funny music hall interlude in front of the curtain with dancing couples, one couple at a time, darting across the stage, creating a sequence of mini-comical silent mimes acted at speed.
Act 1. The Generous Turk. A pasha (Nicolas Cavallier) is in love with a French slave girl (Anna Maria Panzarella) but she is in love with a tender French sailor (Paul Agnew). The high spot, orally and visually, is a storm at sea with a shipwreck and drowning men. It is the sheer artificiality of the 17th century scenic effects, which fascinate. The act ends with dancing concubines and matelots, more Broadway Anything Goes, than Jean Genet Querelle.
Act 2. The Incas of Peru. A Spanish invader (François Piolino) is in love with a Peruvian princess (Jaël Azzaretti). The problem is Piolino is too camp to be convincing as a brave soldier and lover and Azzaretti has to compete with kitschy acrobatics whilst she sings. Nathan Berg, a powerhouse (with a splendid headdress), is much more convincing as the High Priest, who disapproves of their relationship. His barbaric invocation to the Sun results in a volcano erupting. The Festival of the Sun is played out all in fiery red. The ancient rites, with gorgeous religious singing and stylized arm and hand movement, alternate with modern dance.
Act 3. Les Fleurs is a tiresome farce about infidelity and is set in Persia. A prince disguises himself as a woman and a slave girl disguises herself as a man. The high spots include a sung quartet (Tendre amour), two acrobats doing highly dangerous things high up on a dangling silk rope, and an extended modern Flower Festival dance, which is comic and serious, beginning in a silly manner with the dancers as flowers, wearing their huge flowerpots, looking vaguely naked, and driving around in them as if they were dodgem cars.
Act 4. Les Sauvages is set in North America. An American native (Patricia Petibon) is courted by two European wimps, a Spaniard and a Frenchman, who are no threat whatsoever to the tribal chief (Nicolas Rivenq), who also loves her and is more appealing sexually. Petibon has a big personality and makes no attempt to be a native American and behaves as if she was in a revue or cabaret.
The production has a jolly finale ("Regnez, plaisirs et jeux"). The chaconne, with the dancers in sexy white shorts, leads into a hypnotic grand peace pipe dance, which carries on into the curtain call and everybody having a good time, bunched together, going backwards and forwards, bouncing up and down, lifting arms high, making hen-like elbow movements and doing Egyptian hand gestures.
Reviewer: Robert Tanitch