Review of Les Indes Galantes

This review was posted on 3 March 1993.

Here are my thoughts on the performance of Les Indes Galantes by the Arts Florissants at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Saturday: not so much a review (how many times over can I say that I loved it?) as a musing on this particular work of Rameau.

Apparently the BAM is embarked on a 3-year French Baroque project; last year they showed Atys, and next year maybe Médée by Charpentier. This week-end Castor et Pollux by Rameau was also presented. So this is an opportunity to remind interested people to keep an eye out for the next shows.

While the latter is a tragedie lyrique in the grand style of Lully, Les Indes Galantes is an "opera-ballet", meaning that there is no pretense to achieve high drama with noble subjects. This music aims to please. The genre appeared at the end of the 17th c; an opera-ballet consisted in several disjoint acts, with light stories and short plots, lots of dancing and charming airs. The end of the reign of Louis XIV had been rather gloomy: victories turned into defeats, short wars of conquest turned into exhausting pointless conflicts; the King's family was almost annihilated by disease, so that the Court was in constant mourning; the King himself, something of a bon vivant in his early age, was growing old and devout, under the influence of the dour Mme de Maintenon whom he had married secretly. As he remarked to an old friend upon learning of yet another defeat in 1707, "at our age we cannot be happy any more." As a result, that entertaining at Versailles was seriously curtailed.

Needless to say, then, when the old King died in 1715 after a 72-year reign, the dark curtain lifted, Paris and Versailles went on a binge of fun. This is the French Regence, a chaotic period of transition between the Grand Siecle and the Siecle des Lumieres. Again, the tone was set by the ruler, this time the witty, debauched and charming Regent. Les Indes Galantes dates from 1735, while the Regence ended in 1723: but the legacy of that short and intense period is still felt in French culture. The aim is to please. This is the time of Boucher and his improbable scenes of wide-eyed shepherds and alluring shepherdesses, sauntering and frolicking among beribboned lambs; the light is soft and serene, the smiles are alluring, the whole world seems to be in a mood to flirt. Even wars are distant and lightly taken.

1735 was a year of war (the War of Polish succession, in which France got embroiled because the king of Poland was Louis XV's father-in-law). The prologue of les Indes Galantes shows European youths chanting on their way to war and Cupid and Hebe deciding to search for more fun-minded boys and girls under warmer climates: Turkey, Peru, Persia and Louisiana. The Turkish act is about a Christian woman who is the slave and pressing interest of a Pasha; her Christian lover is shipwrecked on the same coast, they meet, the Pasha forgives them and frees them (sounds familiar?).

The dances were missed terribly at the BAM presentation: the dance music is charming, but the long interludes during which the singers can only stare at their feet and wait for their turn are a bit disappointing. Also, the acoustics were not ideal: in particular, the sound of the orchestra seemed to me to be flattened, without relief, and too loud for the singers to come through. That said, the whole evening was pure delight.

It takes something special to play that kind of music, a sense of fun as well as a attachment to grace and beauty. The music cannot be taken too seriously, nor can it be played like a joke; a subtle balance must be achieved, and William Christie knows how to achieve it. This music is made of paradoxes: not serious, but seriously beautiful; court music, but filled with popular dances; all the talk is of love, but all that is sought is a pleasurable evening. I cannot find the equivalent in other national traditions, to this light-hearted way of touching upon serious subjects. Not that only French artists can understand this: William Christie, Howard Crook and Claron McFadden are all Americans.

Characteristically, the last act shows a Spaniard and a Frenchman both wooing a native: the Spaniard vaunts his resolute and passionate faith, the Frenchman praises inconstance and fickleness as true to the spirit of Love. Of course, the maiden will choose another, who offers the right balance between the two (but what is balance between faithfulness and unfaithfulness?...)

The orchestra is always lively and precise, the phrasing in particular is always intensely elegant. The singers were all excellent, and put enough effort in suggesting the staging of the Paris show to make it entertaining. Claron McFadden especially, was delightful. Some of the music came as a surprise to me. I used to think that vocal ensemble where characters sing different texts at the same time came about with Mozart, but the trio at the end of the Peru act was an instance. Also noteworthy was the quartet at the end of the 3d act.

A Digression on Les Sauvages

In September 1725, two "savages", i.e. Native Americans captured in French-held Louisiana Territory, were exhibited at a fair in Paris. They were about 25, well-built, and in their native dress. They performed three dances, representing Peace, War and Victory: one had the full regalia of a chief, the other was dressed as a simple warrior. Observers found it hard to recognize what was being described by the dances, but then, as one remarked, "perhaps they would have found it impossible to understand us if we had tried to represent the same things to us" (cultural relativism, so early!).

One observer was Jean-Philippe Rameau, who wrote a harpsichord piece a few years later, called Les Sauvages. The piece was published in the Nouvelles Suites of 1728, and re-used in a ballet scene of Les Indes Galantes, as the Dance of the Peace Pipe. The opera-ballet itself was a flop, but the music proved quite popular. In fact, les Sauvages was one of the most popular pieces of French music throughout the 18th century: it was played every year during the free concert given in Paris on the King's Feast Day up to the Revolution.

What I find interesting is how this piece travelled: it actually returned to the New World. Around the middle of the century, in the Carribean island of Dominica, a group of French immigrants were having a party, to which a number of natives [last year's propaganda led me to believe they had all been killed by Columbus, but apparently a few were left] were present. Rameau's dance was played, and immediately roused the enthusiasm of the natives, who started dancing in their own fashion to the tune, and danced themselved to exhaustion. Rameau was informed of his success, which he found the most flattering because it was sincere and pure.

It also travelled to the other end of the Earth: about the same time, a French Jesuit priest at the Imperial Court of China gave his hosts a sampler of Western music, and performed Rameau's Sauvages. The piece met with bafflement...

So now, when I hear this wonderful piece, in the back of my mind there is the image of two Native Americans, which I imagine dancing like I have seen in pow-wows in this country, in full feather head-gear, stomping their feet and drawing circles on some wooden stage in a Paris marketplace, and Rameau in the audience, watching with fascination.

[For symmetry, imagine Des Grieux captured by some Texas tribe, dancing a gavotte for their enjoyment...]

Rameau: Les Indes Galantes
Les Arts Florissants - William Christie
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