Les Indes galantes

 

Jean-Philippe Rameau Les Indes galantes opera-ballet to a libretto by Louis Fuzelier. Choreographed and directed 2014 by Laura Scozzi at the Bordeaux National Opera. Stars Amel Brahim-Djelloul (Hébé/Fatime/Phani), Benoît Arnould (Bellone/Alvar), Eugénie Warnier (Roxane), Olivera Topalovic (Amour/Zima), Judith van Wanroij (Emilie/Atalide), Vittorio Prato (Osman), Anders Dahlin (Valère/Tacmas/Carlos/Damon), Nathan Berg (Huascar), and Thomas Dolié (Adario). Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Choeur de L'Opéra National be Bordeaux (Chorus Director Alexander Martin). Sets by Natascha Leguen de Kerneizon; costumes by Jean-Jacques Delmotte; lighting by Ludovic Bouaud. Directed for TV by Olivier Simonnet; produced by Jean-Stéphane Michaux. The opera is sung in French. The publisher Alpha-Classics is a French company and the keepcase is in French. Released 2015, the music is recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: C

Jean-Philippe Rameau's first hit was the opera Hippolyte et Aricie from 1733. In 1735, Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies) was his first opera-ballet. It's a package of 5 mini-operas: a prologue followed by 4 independent pieces, each running from roughly 30 to 40 minutes. The Prologue is set in a mythological garden (here the Garden of Eden). Bellone, the God of War, enters the Garden and leads the men off to the joy of combat.  Amour then sends the women off to observe 4 stories about love. I'll name the love stories in English:  (1) The Generous Turk, (2) The Incas of Peru, (3) The Flowers of Persia, and (4) The Savages of North America. The folks you see in the Garden are dancers or extras. The protagonists in the love stories are opera singers supported by chorus folk and extras. 

Most of the dancing is in the Garden of Eden. The people with their legs in the air on the keepcase cover art are dancers. Something which I didn't observe myself from the cover art is that the dancers are nude. Our first screen shot shows this complete scene with 11 dancers in all their naked glory:

Rameau has been resting in peace for a long time. But the performance of his prologue in the nude maybe jarred him awake. Nothing in the rest of this show is, of course, historically correct (or politically correct either). I think the original words and music are substantially preserved in each story, but director and choreographer Laura Scozzi radically updated the mise-en-scène and plot elements to be funny (often) and socially beneficial (sometimes maybe). The next shot is from The Generous Turk with Osman, a trafficker in people (Vittorio Prato), his captive Emilie (Judith van Wanroij), and Valèrie (Anders Dahlin), in love with Emilie. This looks like a thriller, but doesn't end up that way:

Here's a shot from The Incas of Peru with drug lord Huascar (Nathan Berg) trying (in his own way) to make love to Phani (Amel Brahim-Djelloul):

Next below are some of the Flowers of Persia. I can't be sure, but I think the Flowers are portrayed by 6 extras or "figurants": Laure Cohen, Faustine Lasnier, Rachel Armand, Mathilde Bonicel, Pauline Buenerd, and Chloé Leruth:

The next two screen shots are from the 4th story, The Savages of North America. The conservationists (Indians in the original) have lost their legal and publicity battles to preserve the pristine beauty of this lake in the California redwood forest. The winners are the developers and consumers (European settlers in the original) who lust for housing subdivisions and fast-foot palaces:

These 3 cupids (Daphné Mauger, Cécile Theil-Mourad, and Laetitia Viallet, all professional comedians) make themselves obnoxious in all 4 love stories as "love tourists":

Now that you've seen a bit about each of the 5 mini-operas, here's more about the nude Prologue. Neither Laura Scozzi nor the dancers are afraid of full-frontal exposure. The 11 dancers (5 men and 6 women) are Salomé Curco-Llovera, Claire Laureau, Charlie Merlet, Maud Payen, Carole Bordes, Muriel Turpin, Victor Duclos, Olivier Sferlazza, Rodolphe Viaud, Grégory Alliot, and Guillaume Emeric:

30 minutes is a long time to dance in the buff; Scozzi comes up with many variations:

Hébé, the Goddess of Youth, is sung by Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Being immortal (and a singer rather than a dancer), she gets a diaphanous costume:

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Nude choreography gets boring fast. Things tend to happen fast in a blur of wiggle, jiggle, and giggle. Many dance steps that are routine when dressed become problematical for the nude dancers and the audience. So you wind up with goofy positions like this where a certain distance is maintained between the partners that you just don't think about normally:

Bellone, the God of War (Benoît Arnould), supported by many pillars of society, entices the men to leave for martial art training:

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The women are devastated. To cheer them up, Amour suggests that they visits the Indies for lesson in love (the word "Indies" used to mean any exotic place):

Now we return to the 1st love story, The Generous Turk. We are on a beach in Turkey, where Osman is keeping his beautiful European woman captive while he traffics and smuggles people.   The love tourists are astonished to see how different things are from the Garden of Eden:

In the original, Rameau's story was similar to the story told by Mozart in his Entführung aus dem Serail. So here we see Osman releasing his Europeans: 

But Scozzi uses the power of love to provide a surprise ending:

Next we look a bit more at the 2nd story, The Incas of Peru. In the original, the Inca Princess Phani is in love with the conquistador Don Carlos. Huascar, the Priest of the Volcano, is also in love with Phani and is willing to end the world rather than lose her. In the next screenshot, Phani sings a famous song to Hymen while in the embrace of Don Carlos (Anders Dahlin):

But Phani is already enchained to the High Priest, who commands all of Peru's new gold:

And possesses any woman he wants:

Until Don Carlos comes to the rescue:

In a long and magnificent passage, the defeated Huascar brings destruction down on himself:

(No opera house in Boudeaux was burned down during this production.)

Now we return to the 3rd story, The Flowers of Persia. Here there is vast confusion caused by the publisher Alpha-Classics. Rameau had a "First Version" of Flowers, and that version is described in the synopsis in the keepcase booklet. Later Rameau wrote a completely different "Revised Version" of Flowers, and that's what Scozzi used in her show. To tell for sure which singers and roles are in the film, you have go to the credits in the film itself---this information is not given in the keepcase booklet. [So if you watch this disc, here's a friendly guide: Tacmas, the master, is played by Anders Dahlin. His wife is Fatime, played by Amel Brahim-Djelloul, who is dressed as a man. Fatime thinks that her rival is Atalide, played by Judith Van Wanroij dressed in pink. Roxane, played by Eugénie Warnier (a woman) is the lady with the washing machine.]  Scozzi doesn't pay much attention to any plot in this love story. She uses the Persian connection to launch a diatribe against the exploitation of women. In the next screenshot we see the figurants mentioned earlier march by as blondes:

A child bride with her stuffed bear:

Fatima was a victim of domestic violence. Marguerite was humiliated into committing suicide:

And here is the dance of the inflatable sex dolls. When you go to work for the opera, no telling what you'll be asked to do!

The last love story is The Savages of North America. We saw in the Prologue that the consumerists defeated the conservationists.  The love story revolves around who will marry the Indian Princess Zima (Olivera Topalovic). Her old sweetheart was the Indian brave Adario. Two new suitors seen below are the developers Damon (Anders Dahlin) and Alvar (Benoît Arnould):

Zima declares that Alvar is too loving and Damon is not loving enough. Zima stays with her brave Adario (Thomas Dolié):

Finally there is an epilogue where all the musettes reassemble in the Garden of Eden. They seem to agree that the Garden is better than war or love elsewhere, and then there is a surprise ending that I'll not spoil.

Richard Lawrence, writing about this title in the November 2015 Gramophone (pages 90-92), gave up trying to deal with the "distractions" on the stage. But he did praise the singers, especially Dahlin, Brahim-Djelloul, and Berg, and those in the pit for a "very fine musical performance." I would agree with Lawrence on the music. And Lawrence belongs to the era of LPs and CDs, so it's understandable how he got overwhelmed. But we belong to the era of HDVD, so we have to evaluate Scozzi's directing and choreography.

This was my first encounter with mass nudity on the stage (or anywhere). It would be OK with me if it's my last. I see little artistic merit to the nudes as dancers because, in order to avoid slipping into porn, the choreographer must severely limit their mobility. Then the dancing turns out to be mostly childish silliness. And it was not erotic, since eroticism depends on the general atmosphere and not actual display. This is, I think, a variation on the maxim that in sexual matters, the promise is more interesting than the performance.

So I'll call Scozzi's Prologue (and Epilogue) both a waste of my time. The Generous Turk would also be mostly a waste as the skinny plot doesn't support any dramatic tension. I enjoyed The Incas of Peru and The Savages of North America as clever updates that run nicely parallel to the original intentions of Fuzelier and Rameau.

The Flowers of Persia is powerful. But it's also controversial as Scozzi seems to consider the religion of Islam as little more than a conspiracy of men to subjugate women. I get Scozzi's point of objecting to to the exploitation of women, but then the question is whether Scozzi is herself guilty of exploiting her sisters. Scozzi goes so far as to includes images mocking a prayer service as well as the traditional modesty clothing worn by Muslim women. These scenes violate my personal rule that if what you are doing to entertain one group might possibly seem sacrilegious to another group, quit doing it. Find a more tasteful way to get your message over.

You can see from the screenshots that the PQ of Simonnet's video is good throughout except for some motion blurring with all those nudes running around. SQ is also decent.

Alpha is a new comer to HDVD and it shows. Their disc authorship is crude. To save money, they abandoned the practice of using tracks in their recording that correspond to the scenes or musical numbers in the opera. The disc has only 5 chapters, one for the prologue and each love story. And there's no information about the music in the keepcase booklet. So forget trying to locate anything on the disc unless you happen to already have a time-stamp. I had trouble getting the simple menu to play smoothly---it doesn't seem to respond as I'm used to. The keepcase booklet, while stylish, is also crude. Who ever wrote it didn't know what he was doing and made the glaring error of including the wrong opera version in the synopsis. And who was in charge of quality control prior to sending the keepcase booklet to press?

Time for a grade. Considering the unevenness of the performance and the bad disc authorship, my first question is whether this title should have been published at all. Well, that suggests an "F" grade. But Richard Lawrence's praise for the music saves this from the F-bomb. A "D" would be a safe grade, i.e., don't buy this unless you have a special reason. But I think The Incas of Peru and The Savages are impressive examples of modern opera making. I admire Scozzi for having the courage to take chances even if I think she went too far in The Flowers of Persia. So I'm going to nudge the grade up to "C", meaning faint praise. With all the information and screenshots I've given, you can be the judge. I've probably worked harder on this review than for any other "C" disc I've encountered, so I really hope this helps.

PS from September 2017. This has turned out to be one of the most popular stories ever on this website, doubtless more due to all the nudes than to my brilliant writing. But looking back, my C grade here is probabaly too harsh.