Jean-Philippe Rameau - Les Indes Galantes
L'Opéra National de Bordeaux, 2014
Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Laura Scozzi, Amel Brahim Djelloul, Benoît Arnould, Eugénie Warnier, Olivera Topalovic, Judith van Wanroij, Vittorio Prato, Anders Dahlin, Nathan Berg, Thomas Dolié
Medici.tv, Culturebox Live Internet Streaming - 27 February 2014
A year after the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi and the centenary of Britten, it's not difficult to notice that 2014 marks a few other significant anniversaries in Richard Strauss 150 and Gluck 300. There is however another major composer whose anniversary will probably not receive as much attention and that is Jean-Philippe Rameau, who died 250 years ago in 1764. In France however, you can expect a little more fuss will be made of the successor to Lully at the Royal Court in Versailles, a composer who wrote several important treatises on harmony, and one of the greatest composers of the great French tradition of the tragédie-lyrique.
L'Opéra National de Bordeaux have gone for something on the lighter side of Rameau, but the opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes is nevertheless a hugely challenging work to stage. Done right - and it's not performed very often - it can be just as dazzling and entertaining as Rameau's more famous pieces. That much was demonstrated by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants who put on a spectacular presentation of the work directed by Andrei Serban for the Paris Opera in 1999 (recorded for DVD in 2003). The Bordeaux production, directed and choreographed by Laura Scozzi, takes a very different approach from the Paris production, but it's no less dazzling an exhibition of the supreme beauty and majesty of Jean-Philippe Rameau's music.
Les Indes Galantes might be relatively light entertainment, but made up of five separate short pieces (a prologue and four entrées), it presents certain challenges for a director who wants to make something more of them. Laura Scozzi not only wants to make the little divertissements entertaining and interconnected (which is a challenge in itself), but in the year of the anniversary of Rameau, she clearly wants to prove that the composer still has a place in the modern world. Andrei Serban's production for Paris shows that this Rameau opera can be handled respectfully and still be highly entertaining for a modern audience, but for the purpose of Scozzi's intentions, Les Indes Galantes not only has to be entertaining, it has to also needs to be relevant.
Updating Baroque opera can often be controversial, and there's no question that the Bordeaux production is really going to challenge some traditional opera-goers. That's immediately evident from the Prologue, which is set in a Garden of Eden and features ten completely naked dancers prancing joyfully around for almost 30 minutes. Once you get past the shock of it, it proves however to be a perfect way to introduce the work, representing a more innocent age. Towards the end of the prologue however, the outside modern world starts to intrude, the naked Adams are dressed in suits and work overalls, the Eves are left behind to deal with domestic matters. Innocence has been defiled, and the three cupids set out exploring the impact this has had on love in the modern world. Love still exists in these far-flung places, but Cupid's arrow is less sure in its aim now, and the three love tourists, passing through airport security with holiday souvenirs, jetting through time and space, find a very different kind of world from the one celebrated 300 years ago by Rameau.
On the other hand, a closer examination of the situations in Rameau's four entrées show that perhaps things aren't all that different. The 1st Entrée, Le Turc généreux, is the familiar operatic situation of a Turkish pasha abducting a white woman, updated here to a more modern context of piracy on the high seas and the arrival of refugees on hostile shores. The 2nd Entrée, Les Incas de Pérou, updates the forbidden love of an Inca Princess for Spanish conquistador to the love of a village girl for a wealthy tourist, with the twist that the girl is the daughter of a South American drug baron and the tourist an undercover agent for the drug enforcement agency. I don't think Rameau had helicopter raids and grenade battles in mind for this section, but it works perfectly with the theme and the music.
The rationale for Scozzi's updatings becomes clearer in the 3rd and 4th Entrées. Set in Persia, Fatime is in love with Tacmes in Les Fleurs but, jealous of how he responds to Atalide, she disguises herself as a man. In the context of modern-day Persia/Iran - all bikinis and burqas - it becomes a particularly hard-hitting indictment of the degradation, abuse and mistreatment of women in society. It's a theme that Scozzi recognises is not just an anachronism from Rameau's time, but that it stems right back to the Garden of Eden in the Prologue and continues right through to the present day.
That's also how the 4th Entrée, Les Sauvages, plays out in its modern-day America setting where Zima is torn between two suitors. The director cleverly shows that choice in the context of the place of women in capitalist society as being a choice between being a goddess in the kitchen and a slut in the bedroom. Zima however dumps them both and goes for an environmental warrior saving the forests (respect for nature versus the exploiting of the world's resources yet another connecting theme in this multi-layered production).
None of this in any way negates or distorts the intention or indeed a word of the original libretto. It's actually a highly imaginative and intelligent response to the work that does indeed have the desired impact. Les Indes Galantes is not just some period piece and Rameau is not just a historical composer, but rather Scozzi's production shows that the opera-ballet can not only be entertaining, but also relatable and meaningful to an audience in the present day. That's quite an achievement.
Not only is the concept viable and perfectly structured, ending with the hope of a return to Eden and paradise regained, but the staging throughout is inventive and highly entertaining. It's a massive undertaking to provide a different set for each entrée and keep the whole work flowing, but Natascha Leguen de Kerneizon's sets are almost impossibly elaborate and beautiful. And although there's a serious message here, the intention to entertain is not forgotten, the director also choreographing the ballet sections, using dance and humorous pantomimes (usually involving the three cupids, wonderfully played by actors), connecting it all with projections. Attention to the music and matching the situations perfectly to it proves that Les Indes Galantes can be capable of expressing truth and real human sentiments even within these humorous little escapades.
Another vital ingredient in the production, and one that is in very safe and experienced hands, is the musical direction of Christophe Rousset and the playing of his Talens Lyriques orchestra. This is a buoyant, vivid, exciting performance, attuned to the rhythms of the work with an ability to express a much wider range of situations and sentiments than you would think. The Bordeaux production doesn't have the luxury of the Paris production's A-list casting, making use of a smaller troupe of singers who play multiple roles across the five stories. They are light but sweet of voice, and carry the musical expression of the works perfectly, clearly well-coached by Rousset.
Considerable thought and ingenuity has gone into this - to say nothing of expense - on the part of all involved, but it's to the benefit of the production and the concept as a whole. I really can't over-emphasise how impressed I was with the cleverness of the concept, the creativity and the imagination of Scozzi's Bordeaux production, and the fact that it's all done to serve Rameau and take his magnificent work deservedly into the 21st century.
The Bordeaux production of Les Indes Galantes can be viewed in its entirety for free via on-line streaming on the Medici.tv and Culturebox (until 26/08/14) websites.