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Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Indes galantes, Ballet héroïque (1735) 1761 version
Hébé, Zima – Chantal Santon-Jeffery (soprano)
Émilie – Katherine Watson (soprano)
Phani – Véronique Gens (soprano)
Dom Carlos, Valère, Damon – Reinoud van Mechelen (tenor)
Osman, Adario – Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone)
Bellone, Huascar, Dom Alvar – Thomas Dolié (baritone)
Purcell Choir
Orfeo Orchestra/György Vashegyi
rec. 2018, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall of Müpa Budapest, Hungary
Libretto with English translation enclosed
GLOSSA GCD924005 [60:45 + 62:56]

Ballet has always been a central part of stage works in France, emanating from the court of Louis XIV, who himself was a good dancer. With Italy born Lully as his court composer he saw to it that valuable works – ballets, opera-ballets or operas with generous portions of ballet – were performed. This trend survived to future generations of composers and the public’s taste demanded that there was ballet in the operas at the Opéra in Paris – also during the 19th century. Even Wagner had to – reluctantly – adjust to this demand to get Tannhäuser performed in the French capital. Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was the most important French composer in the generation after Lully and Charpentier – came late to opera. He was already 50 when he presented his first work in the genre, Hipolyte ey Aricie in 1733. This was a tragédie en musique, but his next stage work, premiered two years later was the opera-ballet or Ballet héroïque titled Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies). It went through several revisions, the last in 1761.

The first performance took place on 23 August 1735 and was then in four parts: Prologue, Le Turc généreux, Les Incas du Pérou and Les Fleurs. The latter was not liked, primarily because a man appeared in women’s clothes. It was cut but later reworked and in 1736 Les Sauvages was added. The order was changed. Since the revival during the 20th century the order has been:
- Prologue
- Entrée I - Le turc généreux (The Generous Turk)
- Entrée II - Les incas du Pérou (The Incas of Peru)
- Entrée III - Les fleurs (The Flowers)
- Entrée IV - Les sauvages (The Savages)

But this is to disregard Rameau’s final thoughts from 1761. He reversed Les Incas and Le Turc and cut Les fleurs altogether. This is the version that is recorded on the present set, which means that it isn’t quite comparable with any of the previously existing versions. I once owned the pioneering recording from 1974, conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire, but have rather vague memories of it. Thus I have approached the new recording without preconceptions and am happy to report that my listening session was a tour de force. There is no need to go into a detailed synopsis – it is easily available on Wikipedia – but let me briefly mention that in the prologue Hébé has gathered the youth from France, Spain, Italy and Poland to celebrate love and happiness. The following three entrées present three love stories with complications, the first on the Peruvian plains, where a volcanic eruption helps the lovers to escape; the second in a Turkish kingdom where a Pascha holds the girl captive. A storm causes a vessel to be shipwrecked and her lover who is on board is miraculously saved and the Pascha recognises him as the person who has treated him with magnanimity earlier and set the two lovers free; the third in North America where the Spanish and French invaders are preparing to seal a peace agreement with the savages. The two European leaders both want to marry the girl, but she is in love with the leader of the savages and in the end they get each other and everything ends with a jubilant Ceremony of the Great Pipe of Peace.

The musical score of Les Indes galantes is permeated with marvellous music, colourfully orchestrated and it is played with dramatic gusto and rhythmic swagger by the excellent Hungarian orchestra. There are many orchestral highlights, including the overture of the Prologue, which is reprised at the end, a lot of charming ballet numbers – the delicious Adoration du Soleil with recorders especially memorable – and some dramatic scenes where the earthquake, caused by the volcano eruptions, is highly realistic (CD 1 tr. 31). The swinging ritournelle that opens the Turkish scene (CD 2 tr. 1) is another highlight and in the same scene there is dramatic storm music (CD 2 tr. 7-8) when the vessel is shipwrecked. The final scene, the savages, ends with high drama (CD 2 tr. 38-42) and then the well-known chaconne rounds off the whole thing. The excellent Purcell Choir has a lot to do and they produce a big homogenous sound in the dramatic scenes. One get the impression that here is a body of at least 70 singers. In reality they are only half that number.

The six soloists are also splendid. It is a pleasure to hear Veronique Gens, who after a career of more than 30 years still sounds so fresh and free from wear. She started her career in baroque repertoire with William Christie but has gradually widened her repertoire to encompass Mozart and in due time also French romantic music. Here she is back where she started, highly dramatic, something she shares with her colleagues, most of whom double and even triple roles. Chantal Santon-Jeffry’s powerful, bright intensity adorns both Hébé’s and Zima’s roles, while Katherine Watson’s expressivity suits the role of Émilie as a glove in the Turkish scene. Reinoud Van Mechelen is much in demand today – he has recorded Les Indes galantes before – and his singing of the three tenor roles explains why. Jean-Sébastien Bou and Thomas Dolié are both described as baritones but Dolié is definitely more bass than baritone. Both a powerful and dramatically involved. If there is any reservation at all it might be that both singing and playing is on a grander scale than one normally expects in French baroque repertoire. But I definitely prefer full-blooded grandeur to polished bloodlessness.

The recording leaves nothing to be wished, the informative 90-page booklet in three languages is a model of its kind – and what an earthquake! Lovers of baroque opera should invest in this issue without delay.

Göran Forsling

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