Les indes galantes -Münchner Opernfestspiele

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Rameau is a composer that I truly adore. His extremely personal style is made of very recognizable cadences, peculiar harmonies, and a sort of “half-trill” which, when well executed, is simply adorable.

Some examples.

Trill, Ilia Mazurov, from Castor et Pollux
Trill, Elodie Kimmel, from Dardanus
Cadenza, Mathias Vidal, from Hippolyte et Aricie
Cadenza, Anne-Catherine Gillet, from Hippolyte et Aricie

The München Opernfestspiele this year presents a new production of Les Indes Galantes by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, which, in my opinion, is very ugly. But, in order to talk about it, I must tell you what this opera is about. It was composed in 1735, and it embodies Europe’s attitude, at the time, towards the New World, just “discovered”, and towards other cultures, which were becoming more familiar, at the beginning of the colonialism. The theme is interesting, and extremely dangerous, in these days. The opera, as often happens in the French baroque tradition, is plagued by dancing: ballet and dancing are constantly happening on stage, without respite In the prologue Hebe, goddess of youth, gives a party to celebrate love, and her European followers take part in it, singing and dancing. Bellona, goddess of war, arrives, and calls the young people to fight for honor and glory. Hebe calls on Eros to come and convince the guys to follow love, but Eros declares that love has no place in Europe anymore: true love can be found only among “primitive” people. Four acts follow, without any common plot, each one presenting a love story in Turkey, among the Incas, in Persia, and among the Native Americans. The four stories are not very interesting, but in every one of them Love triumphs, and the idea is that only these peoples, closer to nature, can understand true love, irremediably despised and forgotten in Europe.

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Lisette Oropesa, primary school teacher/goddes Hebe/Zima

So, what is the idea of this production? In the prologue Hebe is a primary school teacher, with a clas of adorable children who wave European Union flags. Bellona arrives, a fantastic Goran Jurić in drag, as a woman general, with a following of men waving different national European states flags, and all the boys follow her, marching on.

Four “exotic” acts follow.

“Turkey” is a fantasy land, where singers and dancers perform in sorts of tableau vivant, in display cases dragged around by other danceers. The “Inca” episode features a high priest who tries to prevent the union of an Inca princess and a Spanish commander; our edgy heroic director embodies him as a Catholic priest, going around on a hoverboard (yes, really, see pic). The whole episode is in a Catholic church, and the final volcano eruption is not really clear what it should be. With the Persians we go back to the tableau vivant concept, but the peak is at the end, where, instead of Native Americans, we get Syrian refugees with their bundles and tents, camping in a scene identical to the prologue scene, with the school and the children. In the original story Zima, a native princess, is wooed by two Europeans; she judges them too fickle or jealous and refuses both, accepting instead Adario, another Native American, capable of true love. In this production “Zima” is the same Hebe of the prologue, the teacher, so she’s clearly European, and “Adario” is a big shot in a suit and tie, with bodyguards around, so clearly either European or American, which completely destroys the meaning of the original story. The two rejected lovers, Don Alvaro and Damon, end up marrying each other (nobody’s perfect, I guess).

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Francois Lis, Catholic/Inca high priest, on a hoverboard

I perfectly understand how difficult it is to produce this opera nowadays, avoiding shallow exoticisms, which would be unsuited to our time and sensibility, avoiding the representation of different culture in the naive, but deeply racist, way of the Eighteenth century. I get that. But god almighty, not like this. Besides everything else, the scene was often very noisy, the peak being the children screaming (literally screaming) during the overture. The overture of this opera is wonderful, a jewel of the French baroque, and we get these brats screaming over it. The audience was often laughing, and the feeling was that the music was the last thought. My impression was of a humiliated and neglected score. I would have much preferred a concert opera.

The music, to be honest, was performed with great skill, by the Festspiele Opera, which, I heard, was reinforced with members of another German baroque orchestra. The conductor was Ivor Bolton, he’s great. The continuo, during the very many very long recitativi, was at a constant extremely high level, with a wonderful cembalist. The brass were amazing, and the percussionist was on fire (lots of percussions in this opera). I really liked them, nothwithstanding the madness on stage. I often closed my eyes and enjoyed Rameau.

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The singers were absolutely phenomenal. I can’t think of any singers who disappointed me, I couldn’t find faults, and who knows me knows how rare that is. Here they are:

  • Lisette Oropesa, soprano (Hebe, Zima)
  • Goran Jurić, bass (Bellona)
  • Ana Quintans, mezzosoprano (L’Amour, Fatime)
  • Tareq Nazmi, bass (Osman, Ali)
  • Elsa Benoit, soprano (Emile)
  • Cyril Auvity, tenor (Valère, Tacmas)
  • François Lis, bass (Huascar, Don Alvaro)
  • Anna Prohaska, soprano (Phani, Zaire)
  • Mathias Vidal, tenor (Don Carlos, Damon)
  • John Moore, baritone (Adario)

Special mention

Cyril Auvity is a French baroque genius. His tenor is ringing and full of brass, with extremely rich harmonics, in such a high voice, which I would call a haute-contre. Often such high tenors end up being a bit flimsy and boring, but Auvity has a masculine and authoritative vocal presence. His French style is impeccable; he grew up (musically) with William Christie, and its oh so wonderfully obvious. Every phrase is planned and delivered with intention, but at the same with emotion and feeling. He’s almost 40, I don’t know how I have missed him until now, I hadn’t even heard about him. I’ll try to follow him.

Wonderful Anna Prohaska! I have heard of her as one of the new coloratura soprano, and she really convinced me. Her voice is smooth, very high, with no edges, and extremely agile. Another one to stalk.

Lisette Oropesa was extremely good in two quite different roles: she was the engine that kept the opera together, appearing at the beginning and at the end. Her voice is powerful and round, I really liked her.

But, honestly, all the singers were amazing. Style, technique, intonation, everything. The most memorable moment, for me, was the quartet at the end of the Persian act, truly magical (Auvity, Nazmi, Quintans, Prohaska): the four voices melted in a single breath, and Rameau was triumphant.

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Quintans, Auvity (crouching in his pretty camisole) Prohaska (another pretty camisole) and Nazmi in the final quartet of act III

It would be unfair not to mention the dancers, who were on stage from the beginning to the end, giving us all they got, in an extremely skilled performance. For some reason they were often actin as “cleaners”, sweeping and vacuuming and polishing. The problem is that 1. I don’t understand dancing, at all, it just doesn’t click with me, and 2. the production was awful, as I said, and the dances were an integral part of it. The children, on stage for at least two whole acts, were really cute and professional.

The chorus! Wonderful chorus! They were unfortunately penalized by this disgraceful production, often singing off stage (why? can anybody tell me why?). But when they were on stage they really sang well.

All in all, I’d rather see concert productions, than this kind of stuff. I think it would be better for everybody involved.

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4 comments

  1. […] This is the last of Purcell’s operas, written in 1695, following a hardly understandable libretto, which tells the story of a war between the Aztec and the Maya peoples, and an Aztec princess falls in love with a Maya warrior. All this amidst a bunch of high priests, triumphal choruses, and the unavoidable human sacrifices. In that period of time, Europe was in love with the “Indians”, the native Americans who were being massacred while we were telling an singing their stories, and our understanding of their BLAH, in wonderful baroque operas (see Les Indes Galantes). […]

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