2014 is a big year for Rameau-istes. The 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Philippe is being marked in France by a huge number of concerts and other events. Across the channel, celebrations are more muted, but this concert performance of Rameau’s 1735 opéra-ballet, Les Indes Galantes, was a highly polished starter to several anniversary performances by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques.
Rousset and Les Talens are no strangers to this intriguing opera, having recently played it at the Opéra National de Bordeaux. Most of the soloists and the chorus also came from that production, which met with mixed reviews. The opera itself is a fascinating insight into French notions of exoticism and the ‘noble savage’ which occupied artists and thinkers during the eighteenth century. It is divided into a prologue and four acts, or entrées, which deal with the triumph of love across the globe – in Turkey, Peru, Persia and North America. Somewhat surprisingly for its time, the libretto by Louis Fuzelier portrays the native lovers as morally superior to their European counterparts. With each act lasting only around 40 minutes, and plenty of drama, pathos and humour in the text and in Rameau’s music, the evening passed remarkably quickly.
Rousset and his ensemble were completely in tune with all the subtleties and tensions within the score. The playing (on authentic instruments, naturally) was beautifully done, with particularly fine performances from Gilles Vanssons on oboe, Jocelyn Daubigney on flute and piccolo, Jean-François Madeuf on natural trumpet, François Lazarevitch and Jean-Christophe Maillard on bagpipe musettes, and François Garnier operating a whole battery of percussion. As usual, Rousset (who also occasionally doubled up on the harpsichord) directed with great precision, although he was happy to let the tempo break free for the many dance movements.
A cast of six, all singing multiple roles, acquitted themselves well. Amel Brahim-Djelloul and Anders J Dahlin stood out in particular. Brahim-Djelloul made for a passionate Hébé in the prologue and a troubled Phani in the Peruvian act. Dahlin possesses a lithe tenor voice and a strong sense of characterisation, which he put to good use as Valère in the Turkish act, and as a wayward and waggish Damon in the final North American episode. Only Hélène Le Corre failed to convince as Zima, the American chief’s daughter. A fairly late replacement for Eugénie Warnier, she seemed less than secure with the score. The 27 members of the Bordeaux Opera chorus proved a revelation, singing their music as though they were Baroque specialists. Their final song and dance paean to the peaceful forests – based, quite possibly, on a melody from two Louisiana Indians whom Rameau saw at a Paris fair in 1725 – was both rousing and moving.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.