A Baroque Variety Hour: Rameau's 'Les Indes Galantes'

WOO-1246-Indes-Galantes-300-3There have been some forms of entertainment that were widely popular during certain times, and in certain places, but in retrospect leave us wondering what, exactly, the people in those times and places must've been thinking.

One example comes from the 1960s and 70s: the television "variety show." Back then, they were all over the place, hosted by celebrities ranging from Dean Martin to Carol Burnett, and from Andy Williams to Sonny and Cher.

Looking back, the variety show seems like a bit of a hodge-podge. There were songs and dances, comedy sketches and standup routines, irreverent skits and sentimental songs, generally corralled by a charismatic host, and often featuring an ensemble cast of versatile performers.

By now, the genre has faded away and the whole concept seems an unlikely recipe for success. And even in retrospect, it's hard to imagine it working anywhere but on TV. There's no category of "variety movies," for example. We don't find "variety e-books" on the bestseller lists. And it would seem even less likely to find something like a variety show in the formal world of classical music.

Yet, in the opera houses of 18th-century France, variety was the order of the day, in a genre called the opéra-ballet, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau was one of its most successful practitioners.

Opéra-ballet had a little bit of everything. The genre did feature drama and music that told a story. But an opéra-ballet usually had more than one story, told in a series of "Entrées," or Scenes, often featuring an ensemble cast of performers appearing in multiple roles. And while some of these Scenes might have featured graphic violence and tragic death, others dealt in comedy and romance.

There was also dancing -- plenty of dancing, including lavish ballet sequences which combined with choruses to create strings of spectacular production numbers.

The proceedings were accompanied by vivid orchestral music, and instrumental numbers at times resembling miniature tone poems, depicting events in the drama ranging from erupting volcanoes to ferocious storms. And every one of those elements makes an appearance in Les Indes Galantes, Rameau's very first opéra-ballet.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Les Indes Galantes in a semi-staged performance by Boston Baroque, from Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music, led by the ensemble's music director, Martin Pearlman.