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Rameau’s Delicious Indes Galantes


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.




6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This review says little about the ballet part of this opera-ballet, beyond a little description – and that mostly of stage business (bows and arrows, peace pipe) rather than actual dance. I’d love to know what others thougt. As for myself, I thought it was a very poor choice to have a sort of modern dance combined with this baroque opera. Boston Baroque would not dream of using modern instruments – so why not have historically informed dance, as well? As it was, the steps just did not fit the music, and came across as a lot of whirling around to no particular end.

    I absolutely agree about the very high quality of the musical performance, I should add.

    Comment by John C. Berg — May 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm

  2. The dance part of this production was a true disappointment to me — five ill-assorted dancers choreographed a la Mark Morris lite — and seemed to dominate this production. The “stage business” given them, the singers and the chorus, was not only irrelevant and distracting, but undercut the beauty of the music. Poor Sumner Thompson, especially, who as Inca high priest Huascar, was asked to push and rattle large pebbles across the stage [this is a prayer ceremony to the all-powerful Sun?!]and writhe and convulse prone on the floor while singing.

    If there is a place for “stand and deliver”/park and bark, and for “costumes” from another source beside the clearance rack at H & M, it was Jordan Hall Friday night for this performance. Despite the gorgeous music, lovely solo singing and chorus, I could not bear the adolescent silliness of the dance/staging and bailed after the first half. I should have just closed my eyes and listened…..

    Comment by ipomoea — May 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm

  3. Just wanted to echo the negative comments about the dances. I was willing to forgo the magnificent spectacle of sets and costumes that I had seen in the Opera Garnier production of 1955 (honest!), but to sit through the historically uninformed touchy-feely body-swirling and Mark Morris-cum-Jerome Robbins inappropriateness was very upsetting. I think that despite the updating of this production’s conception with respect to the direction of the singers, the costumes, and the sets, a more formal, geometric and elegant choreography would still have been possible–and effective. What a pity that the dances detracted from an otherwise wonderful performance on the parts of orchestra, soloists and chorus.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — May 10, 2011 at 11:28 am

  4. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed Geoffrey Wieting’s review; an excellent recap of this very “diffuse” libretto and rewarding score.

    “Modern” theatrical touches proved to be the most dated aspect of this production. Sam Helfrich’s direction of the principal vocalists enhanced the musical narrative, and Marjorie Folkman’s choreography for the small dance troupe was simple yet effective. The soloists sang with energy and elegance, with Amanda Forsyth’s bright, focused soprano providing the perfect foil for Nathalie Paulin’s darker, more rounded voice. The textures of the Boston Baroque orchestra and chorus only added further musical and emotional color. Yet smarmy stage gimmicks (such as the chorus holding up flags at the start of each entrée) detracted from the beauty and power of Rameau’s otherwise breathtaking music. Perhaps most disappointing was the sight of three leads smoking a tie dye pot bowl peace pipe during Paulin’s s joyous, soaring “Régnez, amour.” While the best opera balances visual interest with musical expression, Boston Baroque’s “Les Indes Galantes” could have easily sufficed on musical merits alone.

    If anyone is curious, I posted a review of this performance on my blog at:

    Comment by Andrew J. Sammut — May 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm

  5. I am perhaps in the minority, but I do tire of precious ‘period’ staging and Baroque posturing. The light touch of this production – campy moments included – did not detract in any way from the musical merits both of the score and the performance. The cast, chorus and orchestra (!) seemed to be having a great time. God forbid we should!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — May 13, 2011 at 9:02 am

  6. It’s been some months since this production, but its extreme debasement of the visual aesthetics still lives on. It is not the first time the “choreographer” Marjorie Folkman is allowed to ruin the magic of the music with atrociously looking overweight and otherwise deliberately ugly looking “dancers” who project nothing but the feeling of sad inadequacy.

    Why was it necessary to defile beautiful and delicate opus with visual savagery? Why would a concert performance not suffice? The practice is so commonplace in Halle with the best singers for Handel Festival, and elsewhere, including Boston Symphony. At least a listener would not be distracted by clumsy, disgraceful movements of unseemly bodies, culminating in an abominable scene of poor Amanda Forsythe picking flowers from their toes, while the “dancers” lay on their backs with their legs raised. This was truly perverse and it is stunning that for the whole snobbery of Boston this was allowed to pass.

    The only way to sustain the ill-conceived performance was to close the eyes, which we did. However it is not an experience to repeat, and for many it was resolute not to attend any more performances that carry the name of Marjorie Folkman. Sam Helfrich only confirmed his utterly poor taste, only that this time he obviously did not have the budget to make some new piece in Eurotrash style, with gratuitous S&M and other vulgarities he seems to so adore.

    The whole production team could have watched a DVD available – in Minuteman Library network as well, plus many YouTube videos – but alas, these “creators” probably prefer to “create”, not to watch what others create.

    Musically the performance was very good, with singing quiet excellent. But the overall impression was sour – the visual torture was allowed to last for too long.

    It seems rather symbolic that the opera ends with the part of the New World, and indeed this production was a testament to Les sauvages of Boston Baroque.

    Comment by Anna Shlimovich — September 22, 2011 at 2:47 am

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