Saturday baroque: Les Indes galantes

I’m always interested in European images of American Indians. So this week I have for you a clip from a recent staging of the 1736 opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes, by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

In good orientalist fashion, the work lumps together stories of Turks, Persians, and American Indians under the heading of “the gallant Indies.” This dance is from the fourth and final part, “Les Sauvages,” in which the chief’s daughter, Zima, chooses an Indian called Adario for her lover, rejecting the advances of both a Frenchman and a Spaniard. (You can spot the two European rivals in the background toward the end of the dance.)

This performance is by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie. Patricia Petibon sings the part of Zima.

Rameau’s music is marvelous, but the stage business is fantastically silly. Not all of the nonsense can be blamed on faithfulness to the baroque original, I’m afraid. Consider the costuming, which draws on 20th-century (not 18th-century) images and stereotypes — and those pseudo-Egyptian hand movements as the Indiens mince across the stage.

Then there are all those corncob pipes that suddenly appear out of nowhere. In French eyes, I suppose those Victorian novelty items might look like something an Indian would smoke. And it gives the whole chorus a chance to show off by singing with pipes clenched between their teeth. Still, I think the effect is even more absurd than the director probably intended. Sort of like decking out Madama Butterfly in Hello Kitty gear.

5 thoughts on “Saturday baroque: Les Indes galantes

  1. Yes, it is silly. But in all fairness to Christie et al., the rondeau *is* known as the ‘Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix’ (or Great Peace Pipe Dance). And Les Indes is, after all, a piece of light entertainment — at least when compared to the sometimes ponderous tragédie lyriques of that era.


  2. I don’t think you can blame Mssr Christie for this obnoxious parody. He’s been paired with this camp newyorkaise choreographer several times: always to the same hideous result. Here it is “Heehaw.”

    I think the humanist romance of the naive woods is very … intense. But then I live in New England and wish something here was worth exhaltation. It is worth remembering: Christie went to undergrad down the road during the Viet Nam war, reasonably detested the place, the ROTC, the bully Ralph Kikpatrick and accurately remembers it as “Heehaw.” Hm.

  3. Lebas, by “down the road” I guess you mean New Haven, Connecticut, where Ralph Kirkpatrick [cq] taught at, and William Christie attended, Yale University. I’ve never heard Kirkpatrick (the harpsichordist who put the K. numbers in front of Scarlatti sonatas) called a “bully” before.

    I don’t really follow your comparison of this performance to Hee Haw, the cornpone TV variety series that played off of stereotypes of hillbillies and other white southern ethnic fools. Maybe it’s the use of stereotypes, period, that prompted the comparison.

    If Christie really thought New Haven (or any other town outside the realms of fiction) “accurately” resembled Hee Haw, then I’m concerned about his grasp on reality. Are you sure that’s what you meant to write? Growing up in Georgia, I remember laughing at Hee Haw with my father, a Ph.D. who was born in a sharecropper shack. It never occurred to me that people in other regions might mistake Hee Haw for an accurate portrayal of the South, much less of New Haven. If that is what you meant, then I respectfully suggest that you need to get out more!

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