Jean-Philippe Rameau: Les Indes Galantes
Ensemble OrQuesta, Marcio da Silva
The Cockpit. 6 February 2022
This was French Baroque opera, but not as Rameau might have known it. Les Indes Galantes was first performed in 1735 in the form of a heroïque opéra-ballet, with elaborate dance movements dominating the vocal music. It would have involved a large orchestra, a substantial troupe of dancers, up to 21 solo singers, and spectacular staging and special effects that included, amongst other things, a storm at sea and a volcanic eruption. This delightful version, performed by Ensemble OrQuesta in the square black-box Cockpit Theatre had an ‘orchestra’ of just eight, including the director, Marcio da Silva and nine singers. The only real props were some long sticks, used in dance sequences and to delineate stage areas.
Les Indes Galantes had a rather complicated composition and performance history. It was first performed with just three parts, the Prologue and two Entrées, both depicting love triangles – Le Turc généreux, a Turkish pasha with his captive slave on the Indian Ocean, and Les Incas du Pérou, set during the Festival of the Sun in Peru. The lukewarm reception to the premier led to the addition of a new entrée from the third performance: Les Fleurs-fête Persane, a complicated love quadruple. This raised eyebrows with its two cross-dressing characters, considered at the time as either absurd or indecent. But it also brings a welcome comedy element to the machinations of the first two Entrées. For this performance, Ensemble OrQuesta use this early formulation of a prologue and three Entrées.
The Prologue centres on Hébé (Angela Hicks), the goddess of youth, who calls her followers to a festival to celebrate love. Young lovers from different countries rush to celebrate until the celebration is interrupted by Bellone, goddess of war (the moustachioed baritone Flavio Lauria in a long blond wig in the opposite of a trouser role), who calls on the loving pairs to seek out military glory. Hébé entices L’Amour (Poppy Shotts) to use his power to hold them back as Hébé urges the youths to go abroad to exotic, faraway lands in search of love. Angela Hicks had the bulk of the singing in the Prologue, setting a very high standard in vocal quality and period performance style for her fellow singers to follow. Her credentials as a specialist early music singer were clear. She was one of the few singers to display excellent period-appropriate articulation and beautifully agile French Baroque ornamentation.
The Generous Turk is the Pasha Osman (Jack Lawrence-Jones) who has fallen for Emilie (Helen May), who has been captured by pirates and sold into slavery. She rejects him and remains true to her lost lover, Valère (Kieran White), who has been shipwrecked and soon becomes another prisoner of Osman. Realising that it was Valère who once set Osman free he gives them freedom and a ship for them to return home, albeit through a storm. Helen May and Kieran White both impressed vocally, the latter utilising the distinctive French haute-contre voice. I also liked the clever depiction of a boat on the sea by six members of the cast.
The instrumental dance movements included several well-known orchestral performances of Suites from the opera, notably the Marche and Tambourins from the first Entrée. However, there was only one that was fully danced by the cast, at the opening of the Second Entrée, The Incas of Peru, with some very clever and well-coordinated foot-tapping and gestures. Angela Hicks made a welcome return as the Inca Princess, Phani, who is in love with Spaniard Don Carlos (Samuel Jenkins), but is afraid that her conquered people will not appreciate their love, notably, the Inca High Priest Huascar (Jack Lawrence-Jones) who is also in love with Phani. As the Incas gather to celebrate the Festival of the Sun, Huascar pursues Phani in some of the most inappropriate chat-up lines I have ever heard. He invokes the sun god to cause the nearby volcano to erupt, but as Don Carlos arrives to rescue Phani, Huascar is overcome by the volcano.
The final Entrée is set within the Persian Festival of the Flowers. Tacmas (Kieran White) is engaged to Fatima (the impressive Anna-Luise Wagner) but is really in love with Ali’s slavegirl Zaïre (Poppy Shotts) while Ali (John Holland-Avery) is in love with Fatima. In something of a comedy turn, both Tacmas and Fatima appear in cross-gender disguise to spy on their beloved. The couples eventually sort themselves out and sing the musical highlight of the opera, a beautiful love quartet before the Festival of the Flowers concludes with song and dance.
This was an extremely effective pared-down production of a complex opera. Marcio da Silva and Laura Hensley’s stage direction was imaginative, with clever use of the minimal props and the singers’ hands.
The reduced instrumental forces were able to play most of the notes (the orchestral score is in no more than four parts), although those who know the full opera would have missed the distinctive sound of the little-bagpipe musettes. Much of the instrumental colour came from Joel Raymond playing oboe and recorders, while Kirsty Main was the principal violinist. The all-important continuo line depended for the most part on Erlend Vestby, cello, and Cédric Meyera, archlute, both very impressive.
To comment that some of the singing was rather operatic may seem odd, but there is opera singing and opera singing. Amongst many aspects of singing performance that separates the former from the latter is the use of vibrato – or, more accurately, the ability to avoid using vibrato. In operas from the mid to late 19th century, the increased size of venues and orchestras meant that singers had to force their voices, resulting in almost continuous vibrato. But in early music, including pre-19th-century operas, vibrato was considered as an occasional ornament, to be applied judiciously to colour an extended note. All the singers had vibrato to varying degrees, but few managed to control it in a way appropriate to Baroque performance. That said, the singing from the young cast was impressive.
The Ensemble OrQuesta webpage includes a link to Marcio da Silva’s detailed programme notes, with this neat diagram of the various goings-on –