- Opéra-ballet in a prologue and 4 entrées
- Composer : Jean-Philippe Rameau
- Libretto : Louis Fuzelier
- First performed : Académie royale de musique, Paris, 23 August 1735
“La terre, les cieux, et les mers / nous offrent tour-à-tour cent spectacles divers.” Les Indes galantes offers plenty of spectacle : it’s an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, a round-the-world trip full of ceremonies, storms, shipwrecks, volcanoes, and the lure of the exotic.
Hot off the scandalous success of Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau wanted something big and popular. Opéra-ballet fit the bill. The genre started in the 1690s with Pic and Colasse’s Les Saisons (1695) and Campra’s L’Europe galante (1697). Sylvie Bouissou defines the genre as a resurgence of the ballet de cour, but with two innovations: a plot disembarrassed of mythology and ‘le Merveilleux’ to the advantage of exoticism and topicality; and three or four self-contained acts linked by a general, more or less vague theme.
Here, it’s love and passion in foreign climes: Turkey, Peru, Persia, and America. The stories are slight, but the score is dazzlingly colourful; many of Rameau’s libretti, Kaminski argues, have no more importance than a Broadway revue; their only purpose is to vary the “sentiments” and ambiances expressed in music. One looks elsewhere for drama.
After a shaky start, Les Indes galantes became one of Rameau’s most popular works, performed 320 times in Paris by 1773. The work, biographer Louis Cahusac noted, initially seemed too difficult; audiences complained about a music overcharged with sixteenth notes. Six months later, all the airs from the overture to the last gavotte were parodied and known by everybody.
The original version of the ballet-opéra, premièred on 23 August 1735, contained only the prologue and two entrées.
The Prologue is the usual mythological pastorale familiar since Lully; Hébé, goddess of youth, holds sway until the goddess Bellone (a baritone in drag) interrupts the revelry with a crash of drums.
The first entrée, Le Turc généreux, takes place in the gardens of the pasha Osman, on an island in the Indian ocean. Two French lovers end up captive; Osman, although in love with one of them, grants them their happiness, anticipating Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio by nearly 50 years. It’s a typically Enlightened attitude: the magnanimous ruler, and virtue unconfined to one religion. It also reflects the 18th-century respect for Islam (c.f. Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West). The act contains an impressive storm with rising winds; dances of Provençal sailors and African slaves; and ends with a delightful aria / chorus “Partez, on languit sur le rivage”.
Les Incas du Pérou is the most dramatic of the four entrées, with spectacular stage effects. The high priest Huascar loves the maiden Phani, who in turn loves the Spaniard Don Carlos. The tone is Voltairean, attacking clericalism. Huascar orders Phani to obey unquestioningly when heaven commands. “Non, non, je ne crois pas tout ce que l’on assure / En attestant les cieux ; / C’est souvent l’imposture / Qui parle au nom des dieux,”she retorts (“No, no, I do not believe everything which is avouched by heaven ; often it is calumny which speaks in the name of the Gods.”).
Huascar stages a ‘miracle’ to persuade Phani to marry him: an earthquake interrupts the Fête du Soleil, in a tremendous ensemble that looks forward to Berlioz; Kaminski calls it one of the peaks of “realist” musical imagery of the period. The priest interprets the earthquake as a sign from the gods. Phani is unconvinced : “Dois-je croire / Que le ciel, jaloux de sa gloire, / Ne s’explique aux humains / qu’en les faisant trembler ?” (“Must I believe that heaven, mindful of its fame, only unfolds its mystery to humans by making them tremble?”) Her lover Don Carlos explains the ‘miracle’: Huascar caused the earthquake by pushing a rock into the volcano (a rational explanation for an apparently supernatural occurrence). The volcano erupts in whirlwinds of fire and smoke, and “le criminel Huascar” is crushed by burning rocks spewed out of the volcano.
Five days after the première, a third entrée, Les fleurs, fête persane,was added, but Rameau’s first audiences found it improper. The Persian prince Tacmas dresses in drag as a woman merchant to find out if the slave Zaïre loves him, while another slave, Fatime, disguises herself as a (male) Polish slave. The Mercure de France (November 1735) objected to “the baseness, the cowardliness of a man dressed as a woman. This disgracing of the superior sex cloys the soul of the spectator…” A new version was quickly written, omitting any unsavoury cross-dressing. The slender story contains an exquisite, delicate quartet, “Tendres amours”, and ends in the massive Ballet des Fleurs.
The fourth or “nouvelle” entrée, Les Sauvages, was added on 10 March 1736. The scene is a forest in America, near European colonies; a jealous Spaniard and an inconstant Frenchman are attracted to Zima, daughter of an Indian chief; she prefers the warrior Adario. The story, based on Jacques Cartier’s Voyages au Canada, anticipates Rousseau: Indian simplicity and truth to nature (“une amour sans arts”) are held up as superior to the “sophistication” of Europe. The dramatic interest is negligible, but charming. The act ends with the famous Danse du grand calumet de la Paix, based on a dance Rameau saw Mitchigamea tribespeople perform on the Pont Neuf, and which he turned into a harpsichord piece.
Les Indes galantes needs to be seen, rather than just heard. Watch the 2003 Paris production with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. A talented young cast hugely enjoying themselves in a witty, colourful production with acrobats, ballet (including a clever dance of flowerpots), and Indian masks. Great fun. There are also some excellent audio recordings: William Christie’s 1991 recording with Les Arts Florissants; Györgi Vashegyi’s 2019 recording for Glossa, although lacking Les fleurs.
- Sylvie Bouissou, “Les Indes galantes”, essay accompanying Christie’s 1991 recording
- Benoît Dratwicki, essay accompanying Vashegyi’s 2019 recording
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003