I confess to having mixed, nay conflicted, feelings about the 2003 Palais Garnier recording of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. On the one hand there is some really good music, idiomatically played and sung by musicians utterly at home in this repertoire, there’s some brilliant dance; both the choreography and the execution, and there is spectacle on a grand scale. On the other hand there’s a nagging sense of cultural appropriation and, perhaps worse, a feeling that the whole thing may just be a giant piss take. Actually in some ways it’s all of the above and if one can get into the spirit of the thing it sort of works.
So what is the “spirit of the thing”. I think, to quote Andrei Serban, the director, it’s the creation of “a baroque of this moment”. This is an idea I totally get. I’m done with slavish reproductions of period performance practice and I’m not much better with elements of period performance mixed with the same camp elements over and over again. Trying to create “a spirit of baroque” for a particular production totally makes sense and the details of that must vary from work to work. A great example would be the Les Paladins that I reviewed a few weeks ago. The utterly anarchic spirit of that production would be completely at odds with, say, Lully’s Armide but works wonderfully for Les Paladins. In this production the creative team have played with the 18th century idea of “not Europe” being exotic by bringing in clichés from our popular culture. The most obvious example is the portrayal of what USians would call “Native Americans” and which I, as a Canadian, might refer to as “First Nations”. What we get here are Injuns as they might have been portrayed in the Saturday morning cinema of my youth. In some ways it’s uncomfortable but it does evoke the right spirit, especially when they are presented as Rousseauesque noble savages and used to guy warped European ideas of love.
The second way in which this production creates its “spirit” is in the use of spectacle. The sets and costumes are larger than life. Colours are primary or jewel and there are flashy special effects. Again this calls for care because effects that would have awed an 18th century audience look pretty tame to an audience brought up on Hollywood CGI so there is inevitably an element of camp. Mostly, especially when effectively combined with dance, it works but it does produce the occasional risible moment. For example, when the Inca high priest is crushed by a giant rock it manages to evoke simultaneously Roadrunner cartoons and the dog assassinations in A Fish Called Wanda.
There are also elements to the production that have little to do with the baroque. Essentially each scene has a “starlet” (two in one case) and the way the scene is staged really revolves around what they have to offer. This is most apparent at the beginning and the end. The prologue is built around Danielle de Niese. In a similar way Les sauvages d’Amérique is set up for Patricia Petitbon. It’s hard to imagine anyone else producing the performance required. They are so tailored to the individual singer’s unique acting abilities. Blanca Li’s choreography too is central to the piece and it’s fascinating. It’s mostly tongue in cheek; the flowerpot dance during Les fleurs is a case in point and so is the send up of baroque dance that occurs more than once but at other times it’s demanding and beautiful in a wide range of styles. Oddly, although every musician; soloists, chorus and orchestra, is credited by name in the booklet there is no mention of the dancers which seems most unfair.
There is a very large cast as each entrée is cast differently so it would take a great deal of space to critique each performance. So I’ll be brief and selective. For me the vocal highlights were Richard Croft, Paul Agnew, Anna Maria Panzarella, Malin Hartelius and Nathan Berg while the principal acting honours go to de Niese, Petitbon, João Fernandes, as a wonderfully campy Bellone, and Christophe Fel as a Spaniard straight out of Blackadder. Really though it’s a terrific ensemble effort and everybody contributes. William Christie conducts with his Les Arts Florissants and, of course, they own this music.
Video direction is by Thomas Grimm. It’s OK I suppose but really when the whole piece is set up as a series of spectacles and dance forms maybe half the work we might hope to see fewer unnecessary close ups. The picture is very good and the DTS sound is really excellent. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. This two disk package is also generous with the extras. There is an hour long interview feature with members of the cast and creative team as well as an illustrated synopsis and cast gallery. The booklet has useful historical and biographical material as well as a detailed track listing.
Summing up, I can imagine that some people will find this just too campy. Certainly it’s not for the crinolines and cleavage set. I think though, if one is prepared to take this production on its own terms, there’s more to like than not. Oh, and whatever you do watch right through the curtain calls. There’s a bit of a fun surprise at the end.