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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Indes galantes – Opera-ballet in four Acts and a Prologue (1736)
Hébé/Zima – Lisette Oropesa
Bellone – Goran Juric
L’Amour/Zaïre – Ana Quintans
Osman/Ali – Tareq Nazmi
Emilie – Elsa Benoit
Valère/Tacmas – Cyril Auvity
Huascar/Don Alvaro – François Lis
Phani/Fatime – Anna Prohaska
Don Carlos/Damon – Mathias Vidal
Adario – John Moore
Dancers of Eastman
rec. July 2016, Prinzregententheater, Munich
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Münchner Festspielorchester/Ivor Bolton
Director: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Film Director: Andy Sommer
NTSC DVD Region 0. Dolby Digital 5.1
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC138 DVD [2 discs: 180 mins]

Les Indes galantes is probably the best-known of Rameau's stage works, despite its unusual form in constituting a series of self-contained tableaux (or 'Entrées') rather than a continuous narrative across those sections. This production makes an attempt to unify those geographically and culturally disparate scenes by subsuming and re-interpreting them under the idea that the encounters between different populations and societies are played out in initially within a classroom: the teacher - that is, Hébé of the Prologue - leads her pupils to consider the very contemporary fact of immigration and what it means to engage with an ethnic or cultural 'other'. To that extent it engages imaginatively with the original work, which was also inspired by such a multi-cultural encounter in 1725 when Agapit Chicagou, the chief of the Mitchigamea tribe in Illinois, was sent by the French settlers there to Paris.

Dramatically, the Entrées are melded together well in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's production, in which he was inspired by Paris's Museum of Immigration to recreate spaces 'where the memory and culture of a country are shown to advantage' as he puts it in his notes. The staging fans out from the classroom, moving into a church which is brought on at the end of the first Entrée, as the scene in which the second will take place between the Peruvian Incas Huascar and Phani, and the Spanish Carlos. Valère and Emilie reappear from the first Entrée to be married there, in the presence of Osman who had magnanimously relinquished his love for the latter in recognition of her relationship with Valère. A connection is made between the first and third Entrées with their apparently Middle Eastern setting by imagining Ali as the same character as Osman of the first, through using the same singer and dress. The chorus, who resemble a group of refugees in the third Entrée, reappear in the fourth to protest as Adario proclaims his recent military victory, drawing a connection with the Prologue where the claims of love and war are contested.

The production also remains faithful to the spirit of Rameau's work in form, insofar as dancing is often integrated within the drama – admittedly in modern style, rather than the courtly genres of 18th century France - even during vocal passages, and not only within the specific interludes written for explicit choreography, some of which are cut in this performance in any case. The staging is therefore often very busy, perhaps even distracting - especially when the movement looks more like writhing around than dancing, or when one figure steps out and plays with a mop on a couple of occasions - but it certainly presents a spectacle as Rameau intended. The famous dance for the Savages is enacted as an increasingly frenetic and violent ensemble, making an ironic comment upon the chorus that follows it, ‘Forêts paisibles’. Cherkaoui does comparatively little with the sequence in the latter half of the third Entrée, however, and that does come across as an unnecessary longueur as a result.

Curiously, given Cherkaoui’s theme of cross-cultural encounter, the troupe of dancers are not distinguished by any particular form of dress, race, customs, or bearing. By remaining anonymous, any cultural difference is effaced and so rather works against the message of both the opera itself and this production, however well it is choreographed and executed. Furthermore, it flies in the face of the principle of contrast and reversal, which Cherkaoui otherwise rightly identifies as a central method of Baroque drama. In that respect, it is also odd that the second Entrée is staged in a contemporary Catholic church, which correctly depicts the prevailing religious denomination of France and Spain today, and the religion they took to the New World, but it eradicates the sectarian dialectic of Rameau's original scenario in which the false claims of Huascar's native Inca beliefs are successfully challenged by Carlos. If, instead, Carlos is meant to represent the modern tide of secularism against Catholicism, Christianity, or organised religion generally, then that is not made clear.

In musical terms the performance is, fortunately, more consistently rewarding. Lisette Oropesa heralds some fine singing from the cast at large with her clear call to attention as Hébé in the Prologue, and a pleasing symmetry is effected by virtue of the fact that Oropesa is brought back as Zima for the last Entrée, which returns to the classroom set of the Prologue, and in which she sings affectingly and even coquettishly. Ana Quintans is surprisingly full-voiced rather than demure as Amour in the Prologue, before returning for the third Entrée as a more crisp-toned Zaire, though barely less effusive in her delivery.

The expressive stakes are raised in the second Entrée by the plangent and ravishing singing of Anna Prohaska and Mathias Vidal as the lovers Phani and Don Carlos, which speaks with intense eloquence of their passion, making this the emotional centrepiece of the whole opera and Phani's air 'Viens Hymen' one of the musical highlights. In their subsequent appearances, as Fatime and Damon respectively, they rightly do not seek to emulate the same pitch of ardour, and perhaps for that reason the beautiful quartet 'Tendre amour' of the third Entrée is taken relatively briskly, though still executed winningly by the singers concerned. Among the rest of the cast, Tareq Nazmi deserves special mention for his smooth-voiced Osman and Ali; Cyril Auvity for resplendent performances as Valere and Tacmas; and François Lis for a forcefully persuasive account of Huascar.

Ivor Bolton's conducting keeps the score moving, which works to particularly good effect in the dance sequences, which otherwise often seem simply to hold up the dramatic thrust of the work, if not necessarily its musical dimension. But he also draws out some enticing colours from the Münchner Festspielorchester, such as the silken quality of the strings, notably in the Prologue; the bright and airy prelude to the third Entrée; and the grandeur of the Chaconne at the climax of the final Entrée, underlined by lustrous trumpets.

William Christie's accounts of the work with Les Arts Florissants on CD and DVD remain more idiomatically and characteristically 'French' in style, however, and so are likely to remain the preferred choice for devoted listeners of Rameau. His DVD version with Andrei Serban's production presents a more straightforwardly aesthetic realisation of the work, rather than a philosophical interrogation of it, and so will be favoured by those who wish to appreciate it as such. This new release provides more food for thought – provocative and frustrating by turns – which will more likely appeal to those who already know and admire the opera.

Curtis Rogers



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