First of all, a slightly unusual sort of pattern is emerging with regard to university library DVDs of French baroque operas. Every single one I have checked out has been missing the booklet. Other DVDs have their booklets. But these do not. If there is someone collecting them, I would really like to hear the explanation for this.
As the cover of the DVD box indicates, this is an “opera-ballet.” There is no spoken dialogue, but all of the sung sections are interspersed with extended ballet sequences.
Big picture, this work is not actually ‘about’ anything other than love in a general sense. There is a prologue, during which Hébé (the predictably adorable Danielle de Niese) spars with Bellone about love versus war. This is followed by four sections, each featuring a standalone love story set in a different part of the world – one in Turkey, one in Persia, and two in the new world, one in Peru and one in North America. The stories and characters are primarily vehicles for pretty music and spectacle, although it’s worth noting that the second story, “le Turc généreux” or “the generous Turk” is essentially an extremely condensed version of “die Entführung aus dem Serail.” (This pre-dates Mozart’s opera. The source material was out there in a variety of forms in the eighteenth century.)
If there’s a theme other than love that appears regularly in the work, it’s love (or lack of love) across cultures. In “le Turc généreux” Pasha Osman reluctantly gives Emilie (the Konstanze character) back to Valère (Belmonte), and in “les sauvages” the unfortunately named Indian princess Zima, despite being wooed by a Spaniard and a Frenchman, remains true to her Indian sweetheart. But in “les Incas de Pérou” a Peruvian girl is happily in love with a Spaniard, Don Carlos (no, not that one – he’d fuck this up royally, and this Carlos makes out just fine) and they remain together even after the Incan fellow who loves her conjures up erupting volcanos to try to convince her it’s a mistake. The volcanos are kind of great. The big one has eyes, and they sway back in forth in the background during the big eruption number.
Much of the appeal here is visual. There are a few acrobats and a lot of dancers, and the staging, costumes and choreography are on the whole a pleasure to watch. During “le Turc généreux,” for example, Emilie is stalked around the stage by a red minaret, which, at her escape, ends up in the background in the waves and sinks slowly into the ocean – it’s both completely unsubtle and somehow unobtrusive at the same time. There are sequences of dancers as modern-day sailors, a whole section in “les fleurs” with the dancers wearing big rubber flower pots, and so on. Also, Malin Hartelius gets to wear a false mustache in “les Fleurs” (as Fatime, the Persian girl who is in love with a guy who is not the guy played by Richard Croft, who is in love with the other girl, and it appears to all work out.) Like I said, this work is “hey! watch this! and this! and this other brightly colored thing! look!” rather than “you may now become absorbed in this complex interplay of drama and music.”
(Next part here.)