Rameau – Les Indes galantes / Opéra National de Paris 2003 (2)

(Previous section here.)

I found myself enjoying Rameau’s music more than I did Lully’s from a few weeks ago. It felt as if there were a little bit more color and variation in the orchestral writing. I noticed this with the woodwinds, e.g. with the bassoons during the ballet of the “Incas” section, as well as in the opening music to “les sauvages” and in bits of “le Turc généreux” — although some day I would like to find a French baroque opera that doesn’t have a “storm” bit in the music or make use of a wind machine. Please?

The long list of singers in this work contains a lot of names that are not known to me and a few that are. Paul Agnew, who was a pleasure to listen to as Renaud in Lully’s Armide, reappears here as Valère in the first part; in the third bit, Malin Hartelius is Fatime, and Richard Croft is the guy who is in love with a different woman and not Fatime, and they get to participate in a pretty little quartet at the end of the third section; and the choice of both Danielle De Niese as Hébé and Petibon as Zima was a good one – these two can both sing and dance, a valuable set of skills for this production. I’m not a falling down De Niese fan. I think she sounds better in a concert hall than she does recorded, but although the sound is pretty and expressive, and she can be an utter riot to watch and listen to (remember Giulio Cesare?) I have yet to have my real “wow!” moment with one of her performances. So, I enjoyed her turn as Hébé (I swear, with these goddamned diacritical marks: one of these days I’m going to switch my keyboard settings – is that even possible without causing some sort of internationally-themed software meltdown? Can I even get umlauts and all those twitchy little French and Italian accent marks in the same keyboard setting?) but I didn’t have the urge to listen to it over again.

And then there’s Petibon, who here gives an entirely charming and funny and well-executed performance that nevertheless made me cringe, because that whole “les sauvages” sequences skitters very perilously along the frontier of what I can only call redface. Like blackface, but with Indians.

This is, of course, an eighteenth century work. I think it was first staged in the 1730s or so – I would be more precise, but as mentioned, some previous library patron fucked off with the DVD booklet – and given that it’s a set of “exotic” love stories, it’s not a surprise that these stories take places in settings that would have been considered exotic and exciting to Rameau’s original audience. And it’s not like plenty of other operas (like Die Entführung) don’t contain their fair share of orientalism. Opera is full of tricky representations of ethnic or religious “others” which can be handled well and thoughtfully or handled badly, depending.

But in this case, it’s done with a “cheerful romp” vibe that makes you wonder what the production designers were thinking. I mean, yeah, it’s supposed to be fun, and it is a recreation of an eighteenth-century entertainment and the standards of the eighteenth century are not ours, but just because it’s a recreation of a baroque entertainment and all in good fun, it’s still the case that we have people dressing up as a comic version of a historically oppressed people’s culture and singing funny songs while doing so – without giving any impression that they are aware of any potential problems with that. Like I said, it’s on the edge. Especially given that Petibon’s character, Zima, wears a war bonnet (an item with a specific meaning to a specific group of people which has become a sort of cliche “generic Indian costume!” item) and at one point, I think before the clip below begins, does the “wa wa wa wa” howl thing – you know, where you whoop and pat your mouth quickly over and over. These are not eighteenth-century cliche representations of Indians: these are twentieth-century ones. The dancing took me aback a little, too. It contains moves that are intended to look characteristic of “Indian” dancing – but like I said, it’s close to parody.

I’m not sure why this section struck me in this way more than any of the others. It’s not like the bit with the Peruvians or the sections about the Turks or the Persians are much different. Perhaps it’s that I’m used to operatic representation of the “exotic east” – many of which, to their credit, acknowledge and in some way process the orientalism of the story. Here, the “Turc généreux” section feels like it’s a bit of eighteenth-century popular culture that has been so abstracted that it’s not really about Turks. Same with the Persian bit. But with the “les Sauvages” bit, perhaps because there isn’t quite the same long operatic tradition of stories about Indians, the “hey, let’s dress up as these people!” aspect jumped out with a lot more force. Also, with the fire and the costumes and all that, it looks so much like the fairly awful representations of Indians that are part of American popular culture, although fortunately less so in recent years, that perhaps it struck me for this reason as well.

I’m not arguing that they should not have performed this part of the work. The music is worth hearing, and it’s performed well. Petibon can sing and dance like a champ; her co-performers are no slouches either. However. This entire last section left me with a slightly off taste in my mouth.

14 thoughts on “Rameau – Les Indes galantes / Opéra National de Paris 2003 (2)

  1. I think sensitivities about representations of indigenous people probably depend on where you live. For example I hardly even connected Les Sauvages to the real indigenous people of North America, but rather to a stereotypical image probably derived from my (European) childhood. An equivalent depiction of Maori, perhaps with farce moko (tatoos) and a bastardized haka might conversely get my goat.


    1. I agree. I was thinking that French folks probably are not as sensitive as we are about Native American stereotypes. I watched some of Petibon’s bit on YT and felt similar discomfort.

      If the intention is innocent, is it OK? Discuss. Use other side of paper if necessary. 😉


      1. I do think that the intention was innocent. At the same time, I think there are limits to that as an explanation. By 2003, one would think that people would have a general understanding that even if it seems like fun and harmless, and there was no intent to hurt, it does play into a bigger history of Indians being treated as stereotypes and punchlines. Even if it’s innocent, it’s still kind of clueless.


          1. Yeah – I’m glad I’m not a huge fan of Puccini’s music, since I don’t feel much regret in general about not listening to Turandot or Butterfly all that often.


        1. I’ve encountered a few things in that vein which I, as part of a particular American demographic, found pretty wince-inducing. (The whole Karl May thing, for instance, is a bit mystifying.) OTOH, Americans aren’t exactly unaccomplished when it comes to cultural misrepresentation, so what the heck.


  2. Having now watched this I think I understand the les sauvages staging. I think they are deliberately using 20th century popular culture stereotypes as a sort of proxy for those an 18th century audience might have had. I’m in two minds about whether it is a good idea or not but I can’t actually think of a better one.


    1. I’m not sure it’s a good idea even with a layer of irony. There’s enough knowingness and wink-and-nudge to the performance that I can certainly believe they’re using 20th century stereotypes to stand in for 18th century ones. At the same time, it doesn’t look or feel much different from how it would have if they were just straight-up playing cowboys and Indians. The feel of the thing seems to push the audience much more in a “hey, this is fun!” direction than a “consider the roles that stereotypes about Native Americans are playing in how we stage this” direction.

      I think the trouble with this work is that in order to get into the spirit of the music and the dancing and express all the good things that are in the work, it has to be fun, lighthearted, it has to tell this cute little story – and yet the subject matter forces the production designers into this corner where they almost have to do something that’s going to feel off to a modern audience.


          1. They reprise that big “Indian” dance number where everybody is doing the “walk like an Egyptian” thing but Bill Christie and all the cast are joining in and the audience are clapping to the beat. It’s hilarious.


  3. EW,

    A brief note.

    Cuthbert Girdlestone, who contributed the Rameau entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, counts the composer’s three early lyric tragedies, “Hippolyte et Aricie,” “Castor et Pollux” and “Dardanus,” as his finest achievements….. (William Christie has repeatedly said that “Hippolyte et Aricie” is his operatic masterpiece)

    The impression I get today from most opera fans is that Rameau will always be “cult stuff” no matter how good it is.

    Two questions if I may:

    1. Do you feel that Rameau was a truly great opera composer?

    2. In your opinion which is his finest opera?



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