A Baroque Variety Hour: Rameau's 'Les Indes Galantes'
Rameau's "opéra-ballet" has four separate dramatic Entrées, or acts, each telling a love story of sorts, and set in locales spanning a number of continents and hemispheres. The drama begins with a Prologue, explaining just why it is that we have to go looking for love in all these strange places.
In the PROLOGUE we meet Hébé, the goddess of youth, along with L'Amour -- or Cupid -- both played by sopranos. There's also Bellone, the goddess of war. Perhaps to emphasize Bellone's warrior status, she's portrayed by a baritone, and heralded by a blaring trumpet.
Hébé hopes to lead the young men of Europe to pursue lives of love and pleasure. Instead, they follow Bellone's lead, and go off into combat. So L'Amour assembles a platoon of Cupids, who all head off to find love in faraway lands.
In ACT ONE ("The Generous Turk") they take us to a Turkish island in the Indian Ocean, where Emilie, a young French woman, has been sold into the harem of Osman, a Turkish pasha. Osman quickly falls for Emilie, but she rejects him. Emilie, we find out, is already in love with a Frenchman called Valère -- and he promptly washes up on the island, shipwrecked in a nasty storm.
When Valère is captured by Osman, it seems things might go badly. But it turns out that Osman was once taken hostage in France -- and it was Valere who freed him. So Osman returns the favor, releasing the lovers as the scene ends.
In ACT TWO ("The Incas of Peru") Phani, an Inca princess, is in love with a Spanish conquistador named Don Carlos. An Inca high priest, Huascar, objects to the relationship, in large part because he's in love with Phani himself.
Huascar tries to break up the lovers by appealing to Phani's loyalty to her own people. When that doesn't work, he calls on the gods to bring havoc down on the Spaniards -- including Don Carlos. There's plenty of havoc, but it all goes wrong for Huascar. When a volcano erupts, he tries to use the ensuing chaos to abduct Phani. But Don Carlos rescues her. And when Huascar appeals for even more destruction, it comes down on his own head. As the eruption grows more and more violent, the lovers escape, but Huascar is buried under molten rocks.
In ACT THREE ("A Persian Flower Festival"), spectacular action is replaced by beauty and gentle comedy. We meet Tacmas, a Persian prince, and his good friend Ali. Both men are in love -- with beautiful slaves in each other's households. Tacmas loves Zaïre, a slave who works for Ali, while Ali has fallen for Fatima, who works for Tacmas.
On the day of the flower festival, Tacmas disguises himself as a woman, in a ploy to find out if Zaïre loves him. And Fatima dresses as a man, to discover Ali's true feelings. This time, everything works out for the best, and the two couples join in a loving quartet.
For the final story in Rameau's multi-faceted drama, ACT FOUR ("The Savages"), we sail back across the Atlantic to the wild forests of North America.
As things begin, a tribe of American Indians prepares to make peace with colonists from France and Spain. But there's a hitch. The Spaniard Don Alvar and the Frenchman Damon are both in love with Zima, daughter of the Indian leader.
So Zima is faced with a choice, and has no problem making it. Don Alvar, she says, is far too intense for her liking, while Damon is too flaky and unreliable. Besides, Zima isn't in love with either one of them. Her heart belongs to Adario, a noble Indian brave.
Without much choice, the flighty Frenchman takes it all in stride, and urges the dejected Alvar to do the same. Zima and Adario embrace, and the entire ensemble launches a grand ceremony of peace as the drama ends.