Rameau’s Great “Les Indes Galantes” Reissued

Indes Galantes cover

RAMEAU: Les Indes Galantes / Anne-Marie Rodde, soprano (Hébé/Fatima/Italian song); Sonia Nigoghossian, soprano (Phani/Zaïre); Rachel Yakar, soprano (Émilie); Jeanine Micheau, soprano (Zima); Bruce Brewer, countertenor (Valère/Carlos/Tacmas/Damon); Christian Tréguier, baritone (Bellone/Osman/Don Alvar); Pierre-Yves Le Magiat, bass (Huascar); Jean-Christophe Benoît, bass (Ali); Jean-Marie Gouélou, tenor (Adario); Ensemble Vocal Raphaël Passaquet; La Grande Ècurie et la Chambre du Roy; Jean-Claude Malgoire, conductor / Sony Classical 88985338292

“The Amorous Indies,” an “opera-ballet” by Rameau, only had its prologue and first two acts performed at its premiere in 1735. Not surprisingly, it had a lukewarm reception and at its third performance, a new introduction was performed which didn’t improve the audience’s mood. The theater, however, put on another 25 performances, with the box office receipts growing smaller and smaller with each one.

The opera finally took off at its revival the following year, when more of it was performed and Rameau inserted the crowd-pleasing “Air de sauvages” that he had written in 1725 on the occasion of the visit by American Indian chiefs to France. In addition to the successful 1736 staging, it was mounted again in 1743-1744, 1751 and 1761 for a combined total of 185 performances. Indeed, the opera became so popular that Rameau recycled music from it for four keyboard suites!

The plot, typically convoluted in those days, covers four different scenarios in its four acts. In the prologue Hébé, the goddess of youth, rouses her followers to join her in a festival. The ballet is interrupted by trumpets and drums as Bellona, the goddess of war (a drag role for a baritone), arrives with her warriors bearing flags and calling on youths to join the military for glory. Hébé prays to Cupid (L’Amour) to use his powers to hold them back, but when Cupid arrives he decides to leave Europe for the Indies where love is more welcome.

The four acts that follow thus present love in the “Indies,” whether Middle Eastern or in the Americas. Act I is titled “The Generous Turk,” Act II “The Incas of Peru,” Act III “The Flowers” (set in Persia) and Act IV “The Savages,” set in America where an American Indian (Adario) falls in love with Zima, daughter of a native chief, who is also loved by the Spaniard Don Alvar and the Frenchman Damon.

This recording, clearly marked on the back cover as having been made in 1974, is maddeningly credited to 1973 on Wikipedia and in several review available online. Not that there’s a big difference, but there still is one. By 1974 the “historically informed performance” movement was much further underway, and Jean-Claude Malgoire was one of the first French conductors to follow many of the principles laid down by the great pioneer Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This meant the use of straight tone in the violins, but as you will hear on this recording, in those days the straight tone they employed produced a fuller tone and less of that whiny, computer-like sound so much in vogue nowadays. (Listen, for example, to the first track on CD 2, “Vous devez bannir de votre âme,” where the violins and cellos play with sumptuous beauty.) In addition, the chorus still sounded like people singing and not like a MIDI, and the solo artists sang out with full voices, not pulling back to produce some kind of half-assed wimpy sound. Just compare this recording to the one that William Christie made in 2003 and the difference is obvious: in addition to the softer profile, Christie’s orchestra moves forward clumsily, with very little feeling for legato. His chorus is more reticent and his singers less enjoyable to hear, and the whole opera-ballet is performed a half-tone lower, at their ridiculous “Baroque pitch” of A=432, a pitch that did not exist in France in those days! (Check it out.)

As a result, this performance has a kick and a drive to it that will simply astonish you. It’s much closer in feel to a New York Pro Musica performance than anything you’re likely to hear today, and this is not insignificant because Rameau’s music (and his orchestration) are geared towards color and excitement. He uses so many unusual orchestral devices for his time (think of him as a Baroque Berlioz) that the ear can scarcely catch them all: numerous string tremolos, shakes in the wind instruments, piercing brass and even (in the prologue) bagpipes as a call to war. Moreover, his vocal line, though elegant, is considerably more varied than that of Handel, full of serrated figures, shakes and trills, and none of them sound superfluous, added just for effect. Rameau also used orchestrally-accompanied recitatives, and these, too, are considerably more melodic, dramatic and varied than the secco Italian style used by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and the “bel canto boys” (Rossini-Bellini-Mayr) in their operas. The music stabs and jabs at the ear; it is alternately sensuous as only the French could be and exciting in a way that no Italian could have conceived.

Malgoire and his singers are in overdrive from the first note of the overture, and do not let up throughout the opera. Without looking at the libretto or the track listing, you could scarcely tell when the Prologue ends and the first act begins; the energy is that infectious, and carries over that well. Those who have read my article on The HIP Movement in Classical Music may be surprised to see one of the singers here, Bruce Brewer, listed as a countertenor when I said that no countertenors were used in Baroque opera. But listen carefully: Brewer is NOT a FALSETTO countertenor like Alfred Deller, David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky, Andreas Scholl etc. etc., but an exceptionally high tenor whose voice is placed near the mezzo-soprano range, like that of the late Russell Oberlin, though Brewer’s voice lacks Oberlin’s sensuous beauty of tone (it’s much more cutting and brilliant). This is what the French called a haute-tenor in those days. And listen to track 21 on the first CD: he even has a trill. Wonder of wonders! Indeed, Valere’s aria “Hatez-vous de vous embarquer” is one of the most difficult such pieces I’ve ever heard, but also one of the most original in construction as well as exciting. Rameau really liked making his tenors and countertenors jump through hoops.

It’s also a treat to hear the wonderful soprano Rachel Yakar near the beginning of her brief but glorious career (she stopped performing during the 1980s, in part due to the change of taste for sopranos who could actually sing out with a full tone), and nearly all the other singers are on her high level of artistry. It’s really astonishing, in part because most of these singers are not that well known in America, and except for Micheau and baritone Jean-Christophe Benoît did not make all that many records. The only other names in this cast I knew besides Yakar’s was soprano Jeanine Micheau, who sang Micaëla in the Callas Carmen and American tenor Brewer who had a pretty nice career over in Europe. (Harnoncourt’s pet singers, of which Yakar became one, showed up on nearly all of his recordings of Baroque operas and cantatas.) As much as I loved Emma Kirkby, not every straight-toned soprano had a voice as exquisite or as expressive as hers, and to crowd out the Rachel Yakars of the world was a grave injustice. French basso Pierre-Yves Le Magiat, of whom I had never even heard of before, had a superb light bass voice, pure in tone as well as flexible and emotionally expressive.

Rameau’s music also has quite a bit of stylistic variety. The first act uses what Western Europe perceived as a “Turkish” style, meaning rhythmically vibrant, energetic music, while Act II, set in Peru, uses a more legato style with less exotic rhythms and orchestration. Being an opera-ballet, there is dance music in the Prologue and every act thereafter, and it may have been this focus on the dance that led Rameau to produce such a lively score even when the singers were performing. Unlike the Italian style, Rameau often used different rhythms in the orchestral accompaniment to what the singers were performing, sometimes introducing stabbing string figures behind them for greater dramatic emphasis. In this way he continued to keep his listeners engaged and a bit off-balance. I’ve come to believe that Rameau, in his own modest way, was one of the forefathers of the “sturm und drang” orchestral style later used and perfected in Mannheim. What puzzles me is how 18th-century audiences, who loved to applaud over scenery as well as any musical tidbits they liked, were able to absorb all of this when the recorded performance presented here clearly indicates a musical progression that is connected and does not have “pauses for applause” after the arias or duets, in fact not even after the dance pieces.

One anomaly here is that, in the midst of the “Persian” act, Rameau inserted an “Italian aria” for the soprano. On the surface it could be confused for music by Antonio Scarlatti or Vivaldi—there’s even a passage where the voice echoes short phrases played by a solo violin—but the quirky tune construction, including several stops and tempo shifts, is pure Rameau. Interestingly, themes from this aria, which is set in 3/4 time, are then developed over the next three pieces, creating a musical link that makes it sound less like a sore thumb that sticks out.

The last act, set in “savage America,” is rather comical in that Rameau evidently had no clue what American Indian music sounded like, so he just wrote his usual peppy music and added more drums to it. He also gave the Indian tenor, Adario, lots of shakes and trills to sing (he sure was good at writing complex music for tenor). Adario’s French rival, Damon, is a deep bass who almost sounds like Charon, the boatman on the River Styx in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Jeanine Micheau’s voice has clearly deteriorated somewhat since she sang Micaëla in the Callas Carmen a decade earlier: she struggles to stay on pitch, even in legato phrases, but although it is a problem it is not a fatal flaw.

Taken all together, Les Indes Galantes is surely one of Rameau’s finest musical achievements if not one of his greatest dramatically, and this recording will surely “sell” you on the opera.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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