Jean-Philippe Rameau’s masterpiece, Les Indes galantes, termed an “opera-ballet,” with libretto by Louis Fuzelier, is in truth difficult precisely to classify. It has no single plot but rather a prologue and four discrete entrées (acts), thematically unrelated. Would-be performers confronted the difficulty of the absence of an absolutely authoritative full score and published orchestral parts. Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque rose magnificently to the challenges, offering a superb performance on Friday, May 6 at Jordan Hall. The musical pleasures were enhanced by five dancers, choreographer Marjorie Folkman, Marric Buessing, Nicole Kedaroe, Henoch Spinola, and Jessie Stinnett, providing the “narrative dance” envisioned by Rameau.
The prologue laid the groundwork for the four succeeding entrées. Hebe, goddess of youth, bemoans the luring away of young men from the delights of love by Bellone, goddess of battle, and her promises of martial glory. Amanda Forsythe made a lovely, pure-toned Hebe beguiling her audience of youths, portrayed by four of the dancers. A delicious highlight of her music is a passage scored for musette (hurdy-gurdy) and piccolos. But Hebe’s tender music is cut short by timpani and trumpet, heralding the arrival of Bellone, baritone (!) Sumner Thompson. Yet L’Amour, soprano Nathalie Paulin, has the last laugh. After Bellone has shown the dancers the proper way to hold a gun, L’Amour, designating them honorary Cupids, demonstrates how to shoot love arrows and sends them off to exotic locales (the chorus helpfully brandishing different flags for each) depicted in the
succeeding entrées. Paulin’s rich tone complemented Forsythe’s admirably: the sensual, experienced lover versus the youthful ingénue.
The first act, or story, in Turkey, involves mismatched pairs. In a plot worthy of Gilbert & Sullivan, the pasha Osman pines for Emilie (Paulin), shipwrecked and sold into slavery. However, Emilie loves Valère, also lost at sea, and denies Osman her favors. The pasha (baritone Nathaniel Watson) hopes to persuade Emilie, but failing this, he callously urges her to accept the loss of her lover and move on — to himself. Paulin then gave a thrilling account of Emilie’s “storm aria,” comparing love and loss to a tempest, complete with wind machine and umbrellas held by the chorus. The sea (the dancers) then hurls Valère (tenor Aaron Sheehan) onto shore. They couple are joyfully reunited, and when Valère and Osman recognize each other, the pasha realizes that their roles had once been reversed: Valère setting the prisoner Osman free. In Watson’s moving performance the pasha’s nobility emerges as he sorrowfully releases Emilie to Valè re and sends them back to their native land with gifts. The entrée concludes with joyful choruses and dancing.
Peru is the next setting for a tale of forbidden love between native Inca princess Phani (Forsythe) and Spanish conquistador Don Carlos (tenor Daniel Auchincloss). Unfortunately, the Inca High Priest Huascar (Thompson) is also in love with Phani and outraged that she loves an oppressor. This has the widest emotional gamut of all five acts, heightened by the dancers. Phani has a very beautiful aria with a rather kinky text: “Come, god of marriage, tie your knots, place me in chains,” accompanied at one point only by solo flute (the highly expressive Christopher Krueger) and first violins playing as one. Forsythe was equally exquisite and tender. The High Priest, increasingly unhinged with rage, threatens to invoke the Sun god to make the nearby volcano erupt and annihilate everyone. Even as it strangely and ominously throbs, Phani remains defiant and adamantine in her love for Don Carlos. Ultimately, Huascar sings a brilliant aria — Thompson is very impressive here — making good on his threat, but is thwarted when Don Carlos escapes with Phani. The High Priest, à la Don Giovanni, indeed causes an eruption, spectacular in music and stagecraft, sheds some clothing, and perishes under the lava.
Comedy is the main thrust of the third entrée, set in Persia. Prince Tacmas, engaged to Fatima, is enamored of his aide Ali’s slave, Zaïre, who secretly returns his love, while Ali yearns for Fatima. At the Festival of Flowers, Tacmas (Auchincloss) eavesdrops in hideous drag on Zaïre (Paulin) to learn whom she loves; meanwhile, Fatima (Forsythe) disguises herself as a man, spying on her would-be beau, Ali. There is a nearly tragic misunderstanding among the four before disguises are dropped and true love wins out. The reconfigured couples gave a beautiful performance of the quartet, “Cupid hides his most ardent desires and amiable traits in [flowers].” The concluding comic moment is Fatima’s final aria, “Unfaithful butterfly, renounce your fickleness.” Here four dancers lay on their backs holding up roses in each hand and foot; Forsythe dangled a prop butterfly over them all, collecting all sixteen roses while singing her appropriately fluttery aria with impressive agility.
The concluding act unfolds in Colonial North America near French and Spanish settlements. The chorus elicited many chuckles by waving Old Glory. We again have colonizers, Spaniard Don Alvar (Watson) and Frenchman Damon (Sheehan), in love with a native, Zima (Paulin), but this time she reserves her passion for a fellow native, Adario (Thompson). She tries to teach the foreigners the virtues of “guileless” native love, but they misunderstand. Sheehan displayed some brilliant coloratura in his responding aria about games. Of course, Zima’s message is none too focused, rejecting Don Alvar as too passionate and Damon as too indifferent; she seems to enjoy playing the one off the other. When Zima ultimately runs to Adario in front of the others, Damon urges Don Alvar to cool his jets. With singers and dancers in headbands like flower children, all are reconciled by passing around the peace pipe (joint?), and the piece ends with a great chaconne for orchestra.
One must praise Pearlman’s masterful direction for the nearly flawless choral and instrumental intonation and ensemble as well as the characteristic notes inégales and stylish French ornamentation. For tackling a piece more often discussed than performed, we commend Boston Baroque for sparing no detail.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.