In Rameau’s own time as in the 20th century, staged versions of Les Indes galantes, were often condemned to the same fate: depending on the period, they became, under a veil of exoticism and escapism, an entertainment obeying all the codes of western theatre. But it is precisely in portraying itself on stage that the West found an opportunity to take an introspective look at itself.
In 1735, at over fifty years old, Jean-Philippe Rameau had, for only the second time, one of his works performed at the Académie royale de musique: having turned to opera late in life with Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), he distinguished himself this time in the opera-ballet genre by composing Les Indes Galantes. Here, the amorous intrigues were transposed to settings more or less exotic, from America pre-Columbus to the Orient, as the titles of the different Entrées indicate: “Le Turc généreux”, “Les Incas du Pérou”, “Les fleurs, fête persane” and “Les Sauvages” of North America.
Les Indes Galantes were born out of the wave of orientalism that, particularly in France, swept through European artistic life at this time: the translation of The Arabian Nights by Antoine Galland appeared between 1704 and 1717 and Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes in 1721; Les Indes galantes were written in 1735 under the patronage of the highly lucrative Compagnie des Indes which now exercised its rule over the oriental seas. On close inspection, however, Rameau’s exoticism never goes very far: the Incas dance the loure and the Persians the gavotte, whilst expressing themselves in the impeccable French of the court. For the Entrée of the “Sauvages”, Rameau did use a theme borrowed from genuine Indians passing through Paris in 1725, but this usage remains purely decorative: it would be a long time before western musicians even dreamt of using, for example, oriental modes in their harmony, or integrating “ethnic” instruments in their orchestras. Concerning the costumes worn on stage, the costumier for the first performances in 1735, Jean-Baptiste Martin, sought to evoke the traditions of the Incas by adding accessories like plastrons in the shape of the sun or feathers round their waists, that looked thoroughly life-like and solid. For the revivals of the 1760s, however, these same elements, reused by Louis-René Boquet, were completely integrated to aristocratic dress in the pure Louis XV style.
In a word, Europe projected itself on the “Indies” as in a mirror: here, as elsewhere, exoticism served to satisfy a thirst for spectacle and entertainment on the part of Western society focussed on itself. And yet, it was through looking at itself in this mirror that Europe managed to step back from itself: a bit like Montesquieu’s Persians, who had the culture and references of Westerners but whose status as foreigners permitted them to make enlightened appraisals of European civilisations. In Rameau, the high priest Huascar denounces the cupidity of the Spanish invaders by using the spirit of a Parisian philosopher: “The gold which, on our altars, is mere ornament / Is the only god that our oppressors worship”.
Absent from the repertoire for nearly two centuries, Les Indes galantes were performed once again at the Paris Opera in 1952, as Baroque opera enjoyed a return to favour. The director of the opera house, Maurice Lehmann, a director well-versed in musical comedies and large-scale popular shows, proposed a new production applying his own methods in the domain of grand opera. “There is no doubt that the pomp that presides over this production corresponds to the marvellous extravagance beloved of Rameau’s contemporaries”, Lehmann claimed. Assuredly, but the costumes for this new production, which combined parodies of the costumes of the period with those of music-hall, with touches of Hollywood eroticism, were definitely designed for the 1952 spectator. What Rameau had done to the Orient, 20th century opera did to Rameau: on the pretext of illustrating for the audience a little-known and remote reality, a highly extravagant show was put on, every aspect of which was guaranteed to be familiar to the spectator and which manifestly aimed before all else to draw the crowds and make a profit. A disillusioned Philippe Herreweghe understood this well: “I see it as a sham the fact that a production like Les Indes Galantes is such a box-office success when it is only Les Folies Bergères with a cultural pretext”. One remembers also the comments of Roland Barthes, who in 1955 in the magazine Théâtre Populaire denounced the flaws of bourgeois theatre with particular reference to the revival of Les Indes galantes at the Paris Opera: the spectator was offered material luxury so that he would get his money’s worth. “It is obvious that from this point of view, the illusory sumptuousness of the costumes constitutes a spectacular and reassuring restitution; in vulgar terms, costumes pay better than emotion or thought”.
However, this spectacular theatre, in its turn, denounces itself through self-parody. The staging is not without the odd wink in the audience’s direction; hence the machine that, in 1952, diffused perfume into the auditorium, as was proudly announced in the programmes: an allusion to a bit of general knowledge taught in schools to 20th century theatre-goers, that the French of the period of Louis XV, in the absence of regular washing, camouflaged their bodily odours with the use of such cosmetics, with which the rows in the theatres must, in consequence, have been filled... Audiences at the Paris Opera were not intended to take this ironical reconstruction of history at face value.