March 9, 2014 9:03 pm

Les Indes galantes, Barbican, London – review

The period ensemble was full of joie de vivre and, at three hours, the score was all too complete

Christophe Rousset, founder of Les Talens Lyriques

In the prologue to Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes (The Amorous Indies), Hébé, goddess of youth, orders Cupid to “fly across the widest of seas”. Which Cupid duly does, planting all sorts of amorous seeds in “the Indies” – 18th-century shorthand for exotic lands.

For this concert performance, Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques only had to cross the English Channel to fertilise the growing British love affair with the French Baroque. But despite their best efforts, Cupid had a hard time. Opéra-ballet is by nature a lighter, frothier genre than tragédie en musique, for which Rameau is best known. It implies a large dose of dance, which this performance could not supply. And so we were treated to a strangely inauthentic sort of completeness – the full score, all three hours of it, shorn of the diverting action that justifies its length.

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Purists might be horrified at the idea of cuts, but this rendition would have had more impact if some of the dances had been jettisoned while crossing the Channel. In each of the four “entrées” (self-contained scenes), all the action is packed into the opening section, leaving the ensuing dances to dissipate tension and attention. That spells monotony – an impression partly mitigated by the fact that cast and chorus (the latter from Opéra de Bordeaux) were fully inside their parts. The sense of a practised ensemble, transferring their stage personalities to the concert platform, was palpable at every turn.

It is always good to be reminded how distinctive French period instrument ensembles sound – airier in texture, lighter in touch, with a Gallic joie de vivre that creates a less intense style of playing than their UK counterparts. Les Talens Lyriques were immaculate, with an especially sensitive trumpeter and two players of the musette, a baroque windbag.

The most communicative performer was Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij, who created a sense of drama by sheer force of personality. Hélène Le Corre and Amel Brahim-Djelloul offered a more demure presence and sang no less sweetly. The men, led by Swedish tenor Anders Dahlin, were all well contrasted but equally stylish.


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