In her legendary lectures on Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Anna Russell would often call say that the Ring was the only opera on Earth to come in the “giant economy package”. Well, if Wagner’s Ring is the “giant economy package” of opera, then Rameau’s Les Indes galantes is the “buy one, get four free”. Rameau’s 1735 opéra-ballet consists of a prologue and four entrées: standalone acts with separate storylines, all revolving around love in the exotic locations of Turkey, Arabia and the Americas. 

Les Talens Lyrique © Jacques Verrees
Les Talens Lyrique
© Jacques Verrees

Les Indes galantes opens with a prologue where Hébé, the goddess of youth, attempts to gather young men and women as her followers, but they are instead drawn to Bellone, the goddess of war. Hébé understands that she must go elsewhere to find followers, to foreign shores beyond the bounds of Europe. The opera proper consists of four small love stories, each different in character and mood.

Seldom has the notion of spectacle been more important than on the French Baroque opera stage. Gods descending from the heavens in specially made stage machinery, sets transforming in front of your eyes and numerous ballet interludes. Here, the divertissements, the extended dance sequences at the end of each act, were reduced to orchestral playing, which slowed the dramatic pace.

The performance was thoroughly well sung, even though the first three entrées felt somewhat static and declamatory. This had a lot to do with several of the singers using their scores and holding on to the music stands, whereas the rest were able to sing without the music in front of them. There were some very impressive performances, especially for the two sopranos, for whom Rameau wrote the most alluring and exciting music. In the second act, “Les incas du Pérou” (“The Incas of Peru”), Amel Brahim-Djelloul sang an exquisitely expressive “Viens, Hymen”, an aria with the most deliciously intertwining flute obbligato. Soprano Judith van Wanroij excelled at giving life to her characters, both the despairing slave girl Emilie, witnessing a shipwreck in “Le turc generoux (“The Generous Turk”), or the sassy, failed seductress Atalide in “Les fleurs” ("The Flowers").

Haute-contre Anders Dahlin impressed with a bright and remarkably unforced high register. He was simply delightful in “Les sauvages” (“The Savages”), as the Frenchman Damon bickering with the Spaniard Don Alvar of Benoît Arnould. Although I found Arnould's lowest notes rather weak, he made for a wonderfully imposing Huascar, the High Priest of the Sun in “Les incas”, an act perhaps most notable for its explosive conclusion: a nearby volcano erupts, engulfing Huascar in lava.

Les talens lyriques played with admirable energy throughout and an incredible sense of ensemble. The numerous tutti runs were all completely together. I was, however, somewhat mystified at there only being one oboe in the orchestra when the need for two is quite apparent. The many dance interludes were energetic, and all had a different character. A few of the dances were taken a little too fast, most notably “Forêts paisibles”, the rondeau at the end of “Les sauvages”, the closest Les Indes galantes gets to a hit tune.

Rameau’s Les Indes galantes is a truly delightful piece. The stories are refreshingly uncomplicated and straightforward for French Baroque opera, the dances are catchy and the music is strikingly varied. Even though there was no full staging nor dancers, I left the Barbican with a smile on my face, and I would be surprised if I was the only one humming “Forêts paisibles” on the tube home.