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Concert reviews

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Indes galantes, opéra-ballet in a prologue and 4 acts

Mathilde Etienne (L'Amour), Cyrille Gerstenhaber (Phani, Zaïre), Anne Grimm (Fatime), Claron McFadden (Emilie, Zima), Nicola Wemyss (Hébé), soprano; Marcel Beekman (Damon, Valère), Anders Dahlin (Don Carlos, Tacmas), tenor; Jasper Schweppe (Ali), Mattijs van de Woerd (Adario), baritone; Hubert Claessens (Bellone, Don Alvar, Huascar), bass-baritone; David Wilson-Johnson (Osman), bass
Cappella Amsterdam (Daniel Reuss)
Orchestra of the 18th Century
Dir: Frans Brüggen
Choreography: Andrea Leine, Harijono Roebana
Stage direction: Jeroen Lopes Cardozo

concert: Utrecht, April 29, 2004

The 18th century is the 'age of enlightenment'. One aspect of this philosophical movement was the interest in foreign cultures. The fascination for the world outside Europe was closely connected to the increasing criticism of European culture. In worlds far away, often collectively called 'the Indies', representatives of the Enlightenment thought to find people who were not spoilt by the unnatural aspects of European culture. Some even believed these people were good by nature, and considered them the 'noble savages'.
There are many examples of this fascination for non-European cultures in music history. One of them is the ballet opera Les Indes galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Its first performance took place in 1735.
Les Indes galantes in not an opera as other dramas on music by Rameau, like Dardanus, Hippolyte et Aricie or Platée. It consists of four Entrées which all have a different story, preceded by a prologue which sets the subject that keeps together all Entrées: the power of love, which is able to bridge differences and conflicts (->synopsis).

Frans Brüggen and his Orchestra of the 18th Century had wished to be involved in a staged opera production for a long time. The director Jeroen Lopes Cardoso suggested Les Indes galantes by Rameau, whose music the orchestra has performed and recorded many times since its formation 23 years ago.
Thanks to the cooperation of theatres in Poznan (Poland), Utrecht (the Netherlands) and Ferrara (Italy) it became possible to realise the long-time ambition.

In April and May 2004 the production is and will be performed in all three countries.

The fact that this production is performed around May 1 has resulted in attempts to connect the content of Les Indes galantes to the political developments in Europe, in particular the extension of the European Union with 10 new members. The performance of the opera has driven the Polish secretary of state for culture, the Dutch minster of European affairs and the mayor of Ferrara in their prefaces in the programme book to underline the importance of culture to bring people with different backgrounds together and increase mutual understanding. Attempts like this are doomed to fail: it is only by stretching the real subject of the opera that one can use it to underline the importance of culture to bring the people of Europe closer together. After all, this ballet opera by Rameau is about love, but political decisions are not based on love or sympathy, but on national interests or political principles.
Fortunately the production itself doesn't attempt to construct any connection between Les Indes galantes and the concert des nations of our time.

It is common practice these days to 'adapt' baroque operas in performances. The idea behind such adaptations is that modern audiences can't experience operas the way they were experienced by audiences in the time of the composer. In the programme book the director states resolutely: "As splendid and special the opera-ballet Les Indes galantes is, in order to stage the opera in our time one has to realise how the audience of today looks at the performance. In Rameau's time Les Indes galantes was a great success, comparable with a large-scale, modern musical. A faithful copy of this baroque opera wouldn't work in our time. Therefore I find it necessary to adapt this opera". But: how do we know that a 'reconstruction' doesn't work, as long as we don't try?

In this performance the adaptation means that cuts have been made and the last aria of the Nouvelle Entrée, 'Régnez, plaisirs et jeux', is taken away from Zima and given to L'Amour to be sung in a newly created 'epilogue'. The dancers also have their activities extended: whereas in Rameau's original they only dance as entertainment between the action, in this performance they are taking part in the action, and comment on it. Notable in particular is the fact that the roles of L'Amour and Bellone - the antagonists whose conflict is the subject of the whole opera - are doubled by dancers.

I can live with cuts in a live performance when they are made for practical reasons. But here they are part of a set of adaptations which in the view of the director strengthen the dramatic development of the opera. What makes directors believe they have a better understanding of the dramatic development of an opera than the composer himself? Isn't that a case of the same 'hubris' which is the character trait of Huascar in the Deuxième Entrée?

Customarily present-day performances make use of contemporary scenery and costumes. This performance wasn't different in that respect: although they were inspired by the baroque era, they were made of contemporary material. As much as I prefer real 18th-century scenery and costumes, at least here an attempt has been made to remain as faithful as possible - under the given circumstances - to the original concept of Rameau. One should be grateful that the opera wasn't set in a present-day context. We didn't see an American with cowboy hat and boots in the Nouvelle Entrée wich is set in a North-American country (->pictures).

The acting was also contemporary: the singers didn't make use of baroque gestures. At the same time the acting was pretty static, which I believe is in line with 18th-century habits. In this respect the continuous movements of the dancers on the stage was a little inconsistent in that it strongly contrasted with the static character of the acting.
It was also distracting the attention from the singing and the playing of the orchestra. That was even more the case, since the dances were modern in character. Or that is what the programme book said. This kind of dance is far less formalised than those in vogue in the baroque era, and to me they seemed out of line with the character of the opera.

One could argue, of course, that the dancing was a kind of compensation for the static character of the acting. But I don't think that was the real problem, not even for a modern audience. The real problem as far as the acting is concerned was the lack of interaction between the protagonists. It seemed some of them were 'singing apart together': they sang their lines, but there wasn't much connection between them. Static acting doesn't mean stiff or wooden acting. And that was often the case in this performance.

After the overture the opera starts with a Prologue, which opens with the entrance of Hébé. Her character was excellently portrayed by Nicola Wemyss, who also impressed with her stylish singing. Then the goddess of war, Bellone, enters, which is a role for a low voice. He is supposed to sound frightening, but the voice of Hubert Claessens lacked the necessary strength to realise that. His acting was not very convincing either. The prologue ends when Hébé calls for L'Amour, the goddess of love. This role was beautifully sung by Mathilde Etienne.

In the Première Entrée we saw David Wilson-Johnson as Osman who didn't seem to feel really at home in this kind of music. Claron McFadden, on the other hand, gave a very fine and stylish performance of the role of Emilie. Marcel Beekman couldn't really adapt to his role of Valère: he has a nice and clear voice but lacks any feeling and differentiation. His acting was what was referred to above as 'wooden'.

The Deuxième Entrée is set in Peru, where the High Priest of the Sun, Hualcar, tries to convince Phani of his love; but she remains faithful to the Spanish officer Don Carlos. The way the events were staged was quite impressive. Hubert Claessens did somewhat better here than in the prologue, but he still was too light-weight to make Hualcar the cruel character the librettist Louis Fuselier and Rameau have made him. Cyrille Gerstenhaber did well in her portrayal of Phani, but her singing was a little out of touch with the baroque style. The true revelation of the production was the Swedish tenor Anders Dahlin, a singer with a very pleasant, light voice, which is ideally suited to this kind of music. He also gave a very good performance of the character of Don Carlos.

In the Troisième Entrée is the least dramatic of all Entrées. It is a piece which is set in Persia and is predominantly pastoral in character. Is it a surprise that this Entrée was the most overall convincing part of the whole opera? In particular the ensembles of the four characters Tacmas (Anders Dahlin), Zaïre (Cyrille Gerstenhaber), Ali (Jasper Schweppe) and Fatime (Anne Grimm) were delightful and moving.

The Nouvelle Entrée is set somewhere in North America. Two officers, the French Damon and the Spaniard Don Alvar, try to attract the Indian girl Zima. She chooses Adario, the leader of the native warriors. Marcel Beekman did a lot better here than before. A comical role like that of Damon seems to suit him better than more serious roles like that of Valère in the Première Entrée. Hubert Claessens as Don Alvar and Mattijs van der Woerd as Adario also gave good performances, both vocally and in regard to acting. Claron McFadden did very well again as Zima, singing a lovely duet with Adario at the end of this Entrée.

The newly created epilogue saw the return of L'Amour which was followed by the concluding chaconne.

I haven't mentioned choir and orchestra yet. The role of the choir is quite important, singing at the end of every Entrée, often together with one of more of the protagonists. The Cappella Amsterdam showed itself again to be a very flexible ensemble of fine voices, well at home in the style of the baroque.

The orchestra has a long experience in playing the ballet music by Rameau. It was therefore a little disappointing that it couldn't fully realise the expectations. Of course, the rather dry acoustics of a theatre aren't very helpful to make the music sound in its full glory, but I was surprised not to hear the colouring and brilliance of Rameau's orchestral score. There were some technical imperfections as well, and the communication between orchestra and singers on the stage was not always optimal.

"A faithful copy of this baroque opera wouldn't work in our time." Did this adaptation work? Not for me.
Yes, I did enjoy myself, thanks to the magnificent music by Rameau. But I was never really enthralled. The staging should add a dimension to the music, but - even though I liked some of it - on the whole it didn't.
But we should be thankful that this production was at least tasteful which was a great relief, considering the way Rameau's Platée was ruined at this same theatre during the Holland Festival Early Music 2002.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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