For Parisian audiences in 1735, hearing the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) must have resembled hearing Stravinsky for the first time. While the fifty-two year old composer had primarily been known as a theorist, the powerful harmonies and atmospheric textures of his second opera Les Indes Galantes had some audience members literally shouting at the orchestra. While no one was yelling this weekend at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, conductor Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque illustrated Rameau’s ability to energize and surprise twenty-first century audiences. Unfortunately “modern” theatrical touches proved to be the most dated aspect of this production.
Eighteenth century France was fascinated by distant cultures, and Louis Fuzelier’s libretto tells four different stories of love, jealousy and friendship in faraway locales. Rameau’s “exotic” score might not impress a trained ethnomusicologist, but its spirit and invention more than compensate for cultural inaccuracies. Whirling minor key phrases introduce the Turkish court, Peru’s sun-drenched shores are depicted in shimmering strings, a Persian festival is colored with lively dances, and bright trumpets over rolling timpani capture the untamed plains of North America. It’s a wide-ranging musical trip, even if it doesn’t resemble any place on an actual map.
Pearlman told The Boston Globe that “[French Baroque opera] has the reputation of needing lots of spectacle…But I don’t believe that…[Rameau’s work] stands up to the kind of performance that focuses on the music.’’ Yet the conductor’s comments were at odds with the superfluous, at times kitschy extra-musical effects of this semi-staged 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. Yet smarmy stage gimmicks such as the chorus holding up flags at the start of each entrée, or beach towels and sunglasses depicting European conquerors detracted from the beauty and power of Rameau’s music.
The sound of Daniel Auchincloss’s voice was much funnier than the sight of his exaggerated drag, and Amanda Forsythe’s “Papillon inconstant” floated beautifully without her needing to dangle a toy butterfly over a “garden” of dancers’ feet and fake flowers. Campy effects similarly disturbed the musical and emotional gravity of several instrumental passages. Perhaps most disappointing was the sight of three leads smoking a tie dye pot bowl peace pipe while Nathalie Paulin sang a joyous, soaring “Régnez, amour” towards the end of the opera.
These needles stage antics became all the more unsatisfying given such an impressive cast. Amanda Forsyth’s bright, focused soprano was the perfect foil for Paulin’s darker, more rounded voice, with Forsyth adding plaintive intimacy to the Incan princess’s “Viens, hymen.” Sumner Thompson’s booming baritone made a compelling case for the glories of war in the prologue, while combining self-delusion with fanaticism as a villainous Incan priest. The tenors of Daniel Auchincloss and Aaron Sheehan remained flexible and emotive into the highest vocal ranges, with Sheehan clearly enjoying himself as a satirically laissez-faire Frenchman against baritone Nathaniel Watson’s hotheaded Spanish conquistador.
Far from providing mere accompaniment, the Boston Baroque essentially rounded out the cast with their presence onstage. Rameau’s sophisticated orchestration is best heard through the transparency of period instruments; this orchestra added polish and spontaneity, with a subtle rhythmic verve that had audience members bobbing their heads along to the music. The sprightly overture was played with a crisp edge, and furious tremolos, cracking dissonances and tight dynamics depicted an erupting volcano better than any stage effect. A touching lament in the third entrée, scored simply for soprano, flute, cello and harpsichord, showcased the composer and orchestra’s touch with smaller forces and a good tune. The Boston Baroque chorus added further textural and psychological depth, yet once again with such beautiful, inspired singing, why were they asked to open umbrellas, flash peace-signs and sway “Laugh-In” style for the work’s celebratory finale?
Italian attendees at the premier of Les Indes Galantes criticized the French reliance on stage effects, preferring their native style’s reliance on strictly musical means. While good opera balances visual interest with musical expression, Boston Baroque’s “Les Indes Galantes” could have easily sufficed on musical merits alone. Inventive music, passionately sung and played, is a good place to start and sometimes a great place to end.
Rameau’s music has benefitted from sensitive, passionate interpretations by other groups such as Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie, and Les Talens Lyriques with Christophe Rousett. Here’s Christie and his band with a characteristically vivid reading of Rameau’s racing overture from his opera ‘Zoroastre:’
Patricia Petibon tells us all to chillax and have a good time with the a rousing, virtuosic “Regnez, plaisirs” (with some interesting costumes and staging):
Just to show Rameau was equally gifted with smaller forces and instrumentals, listen to Trevor Pinnock, Rachel Podger and Jonathan Manson dig in on some jogging ancien regime jazz: