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Les Indes Gallantes

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Last Saturday, Denman was treated by the Denman Baroque Festival to a thoroughly professional performance of Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s opera, Les Indes Gallantes (The Amorous Indies), premiered in 1735 and subsequently refreshed during the eighteenth century in several versions, staying in the repertoire until 1773 and revived only in 1925.

The Festival’s pre-Covid operatic productions (Purcell’s Faery Queen, and Monteverdi’s Orfeo) were substantial community affairs, drawing on both local amateur musicians and visiting professionals. This time, due to the deadening hand of Covid, something on the previous scale was not possible. The Festival fought back with a smaller, but high-quality production, capitalizing on the network of musicians they have built up. The establishment of a Salt Spring baroque music society is a tribute to their reputation.

The performance was a judicious program of selections from what would otherwise be a marathon three and a half hours. The theme of the work is the triumph of love over war. The full opera is a tour of the Baroque world view with four acts set in Turkey, Persia, Peru, and North America, chiefs from what is now Michigan having been introduced at court to Louis XV in 1725.

In an era long before the nineteenth century discovery and exaltation of national musical traditions, I must admit, I did not detect much difference between one country and another, even though the Air de Sauvage (Song of the Savages) was a strikingly novel idea at the time, better received than the riot over Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. Even so, to give Rameau his due, it should be noted that no court anywhere else, Turkish, Chinese, or Persian ever had the slightest interest in referencing Europe in their music (the Inca court, wiped out 200 years earlier, must be excused). I was reminded of this by a visit to the famous Harem of Topkapi in Istanbul where a piano, donated by Queen Victoria, was pointed out in the main salon that I very much doubt was ever used to play an Ottoman version of a Strauss waltz.

Not too much should be made of this, however. Most of the selections were taken up with the universals of love in all its moods. Hearing the music so close up, with each instrument clear, invited involvement.

The rehearsals, Robert Newton and Andrew Fyson told me, were intense, eight hours every day for a week. This was partly due to the exactitude of maestros Marco Vitale and Romeo Cuiffa, but also to the sheer difficulty of the music. A great deal of counterpoint carried from one instrument to another, so that they are not all playing in unison made keeping everyone together a challenge. There is also a great deal of ornamentation, sometimes at very fast tempi.

Les Indes gallantes is an opera-ballet, but in this abbreviated form, there was no dancing. The singing was also limited but satisfying. Soprano Abby Schuliger sang Hebe and L’Amour from the Prologue, and Zima from Act IV, the Savages. Andrew Fyson, in a huge wild wig of red hair and a bright red surcoat, sang Bellone, the god of war, in the Prologue, and Don Alvar in Act IV. Abby Schuliger’s soprano was a real pleasure, giving expressive poise to the elegant containment of Baroque emotion. Andrew Fyson’s basso was strong and dramatic. At the very end they were joined on stage by the tenor__________, Abby’s husband, in the role of Adario in a really beautiful trio of tender celebration.

Myself, I am not good at following lyrics, so the English surtitles were really appreciated. These were accompanied by titles and images for each scene played by the orchestra, some of which strained for political correctness, like the image of the slave crying Freedom when any such notion was very far from the French court of the day, no doubt enjoying their investments in the sugar plantations of Hispaniola (now Haiti/San Domingo). The prescient irony of Zima and Adario’s aria in the Dance of the Peace Pipes was more to the point:

Peaceful forests

May an unrequited love never trouble out hearts.

If they are susceptible,

Fortune, it is not because of your favours.

Right on. That’s why we have Reconciliation today.

The rainbow flag was also paraded past the stage at one point which seemed a trifle forced, but why not? Afterall, Bellone, it must be noted, wore an armoured brassiere over his surcoat. Best of all, in a moment of unintentional brilliance, Bellone lost his pantaloons in a tussle behind the orchestra with his work boots and was compelled to celebrate the triumph of love in his shorts. That the God of War loses his pants – what could be more appropriate?

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