Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nathaniel Watson, Amanda Forsythe, Daniel Auchincloss and Nathalie Paulin in Les Indes Galantes. (Photo: Julian Bullitt)
In a way it's hard to critique Rameau's Les Indes Galantes, because there's so little like it being performed today. What can you compare it to? It's classified as an "opera-ballet," but it's neither a cohesive 'opera' nor a 'ballet' (instead it's a set of thematically related romantic fables, alternating with dances that seem to float on the edge of audience participation). And the whole piece stops every now and then for a major special effect (like the volcano that erupts at the end of the second act - or pardon me, entrée). I think in the end Les Indes is best described as a kind of baroque variety show.

I don't mean that as a crack, btw. Much of the charm of the recent Boston Baroque production (and it was quite charming, trust me) was that you were never sure what might be coming next.  You did know that each scene was going to have a whimsical point to make about l'amour, but the settings of these musical valentines ranged from Persia to Peru, and were crammed with sultans, sun-gods, savages, and even transvestites; one minute, lovers were kissing before the lava reached the village; the next, they were trading suspiciously intoxicating "peace pipes."  Basically, there was something for everyone.

Luckily, every scene was likewise crammed with gorgeous music, too. Conductor Martin Pearlman has a special jones for the French baroque, and his case for a stripped-down version of Les Indes (the original was something of a spectacle) was that the music was spectacular all on its own, and he was proved quite right; particularly the first half of Rameau's score is wonderful - and so varied in its scene-painting that it shocked contemporary audiences. Plus it closes on a thrilling high note with that volcanic eruption (you don't normally link "French baroque" with "Krakatoa," but believe me, Rameau pulls it off). It's true that the work's second half is more variable in its inspiration, but still boasts ravishing moments, like the lovely quartet that pulls together the third entrée, and the elegant closing chaconne. One left the concert feeling that we really don't hear enough Rameau in this town.

The French genius was well-served by the period orchestra, whose playing was exquisite, and the chorus was in good voice, too - but the performance's chief jewel proved to be its soloists, who were all of outstanding quality. Local favorite Amanda Forsythe was most in period - the early eighteenth century - with her pearly, pure tone (her radiant comic acting was timeless, but that's another issue), while soprano Nathalie Paulin seemed to be replying to her from several decades later, but with a dusky richness so transporting that you didn't care. The men were just as strong, and likewise roughly in period - the powerful Sumner Thompson was probably the stand-out (in a passionate turn as a suicidal Incan that's probably the vocal highlight of the opera) but baritone Nathaniel Watson impressed with his eloquent lyricism too, and tenors Aaron Sheehan and Daniel Auchincloss more than held their own in their respective entrées. All in all, this was the most consistent set of soloists I've yet heard with Boston Baroque.

I wish I could give the same high marks to the accompanying dances, but these proved the production's sole weak point. Choreographed by the talented Marjorie Folkman - late of the Mark Morris Dance Group - they were much in her mentor's style, but exhibited little of his sense of musical structure and meaning, and so were lightly charming, but that's about it. Folkman was certainly constrained in terms of space, but you also felt an unnecessary constraint in her choreographic ambition; things got a bit more complex (and more genuinely lyrical) in the later entrées, but one still felt the dances weren't quite worthy of their accompaniment.

Meanwhile the clever direction by Sam Helfrich made witty use of what few (contemporary) props the staging could allow - and he even cheekily pulled the chorus into the action, too (they waved tiny national flags to introduce each change of locale, and even boogied a bit). In some ways Helfrich's ironic flair answered a question that's clearly on Pearlman's mind, i.e. how do you stage baroque works without turning them into museum pieces? Still, by the end of the evening some of the director's gambits had begun to seem superficial, and a few of his knowing jokes (like the predictable one about those "peace pipes") went on a bit too long; we began to perceive that something central to Rameau's vision - its truly wonder-struck exoticism - had somehow gone missing from the staging. This only argues, of course, for a fuller production from Pearlman at a later date. In the meantime we should be grateful for his tireless work in bringing this luminous score back into the repertoire.

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