English National Opera – Purcell’s The Indian Queen – Lucy Crowe, Vince Yi, Luisa Julia Bullock, Anthony Roth Costanzo; directed by Peter Sellars; conducted by Laurence Cummings

Purcell
The Indian Queen – Opera in five Acts to a libretto after John Dryden & Robert Howard [completed and rewritten by Peter Sellars with texts by Katherine Philips, George Herbert, John Dryden and others; sung in English with English surtitles]

Teculihuatzin / Doña – Luisa Julia Bullock
Doña Isabel – Lucy Crowe
Hunahpú – Vince Yi
Ixbalanqué – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Don Pedro de Alvarado – Noah Stewart
Don Pedrarias Dávila – Thomas Walker
Mayan Shaman – Luthando Qave
Leonor – Maritxell Carrero
Tecum Umán – Jack Thomson

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Laurence Cummings

Peter Sellars – Director
Gronk (Glugio Gronk Nicandro) – Set Designer
Dunya Ramicova – Costume Designer
James F. Ingalls – Lighting Designer
Christopher Williams – Choreographer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 26 February, 2015
Venue: The Coliseum, London

English National Opera's production of Purcell's The Indian QueenPhotograph: Richard Hubert Smith‘Peter Sellars’s History of Teculihuatzin’ would be a better description of this production new to English National Opera, already seen at Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real in Madrid. The fact that Henry Purcell’s last dramatic work, The Indian Queen (1694-5) is unfinished seems to have given Sellars the licence to use this surviving musical fragment to his own ends, leaving virtually no similarity with the play by John Dryden and Robert Howard, from which the original was adapted.

An essentially new drama has been fashioned from Rosario Aguilar’s novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, incorporating other compositions by Purcell at fitting moments. Gone is the narrative of the Inca of Peru’s invasion of the kingdom of Mexico with his famous general Montezuma, and the machinations of the usurping queen Zempoalla. Instead the story is told of the Spanish conquest of Mexico under the conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado, who fathers a child with Teculihuatzin (who ostensibly becomes the Indian Queen of the title). The tale is therefore one of colonial conquest, massacre, and oppression, and is also told from Teculihuatzin’s viewpoint, so male domination comes in for a drubbing too, especially given that de Alvarado abandons Teculihuatzin for a more suitable European wife. This begs the question why Sellars and company did not simply turn their efforts to Madama Butterfly, rather than inflicting damage upon a perfectly coherent musical drama by two of Restoration England’s finest creative minds.

English National Opera's production of Purcell's The Indian QueenPhotograph: Richard Hubert SmithFrom the programme it is not clear exactly who contrived the spoken monologues, though nobody may wish to claim responsibility for their sheer banality. (The descriptions of Teculihuatzin and de Alvarado’s lovemaking stand out for their graphic crudity, as though taken from Fifty Shades of Grey or some other pornographic release for general consumption. The feminist perspective of this interpretation must be the justification for Luisa Bullock’s caresses and objectification of Noah Stewart’s well-built body. It later turned out that he also sings rather well, the demonstration of which appears to be an afterthought in this production.)

Unfortunately, the contrast with Dryden’s finely wrought verses – set so fluently and idiomatically by Purcell – becomes painfully obvious. It was not clear why these monologues were delivered (confusingly, by Maritxell Carrero as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and de Alvarado) in a North American accent (with grating references to ‘loo-tenant’ and so on) as this had nothing to do with the time and place of this setting (admittedly the Spanish soldiers were wearing khaki dress and carried machine guns, so one might make a connection with recent futile Anglo-American military ventures).

Visually the production is little better. Various painted canvases descended from time to time to provide the scene, usually featuring Jackson Pollock-like collages of Mayan symbols, figures, and other splashes of colour. Though few other sets were used, these backdrops limit the area which the singers and dancers had at their disposal, so that the choreography felt rather two-dimensional. The rough clothes of assorted colours worn by the chorus looked as though they must have come from Primark.

That leaves the music, then, which on the whole was excellent and provides the reason for seeing the production. Laurence Cummings’s direction was by turns lively and dignified, giving the music a vigour which often foreshadowed Handel, though the patchwork of vocal and dance numbers also made the resulting pasticcio more akin to the French operas of Lully, Charpentier or Rameau. The cast mainly sang convincingly with dramatic performances from Luisa Julia Bullock and the afore-mentioned Noah Stewart, and Lucy Crowe as Doña Isabel. Luthando Qave gave a credible sense of scheming as a Mayan Shaman, notably in the well-known ‘What flatt’ring noise is this?’. Of the two countertenors, Vince Yi sang much the more mellifluously and musically, with an almost female-sounding purity in his voice. Anthony Roth Costanzo was less secure in his first few appearances, and though he sang with an ethereal clarity in ‘Music for a while’, he did not make much of the melody itself.

The Chorus of English National Opera was generally good, often sustaining dramatic pauses in its appearances (for the most part interpolated from Purcell’s church anthems – ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord’ served as an effective lament after the Spanish massacre of the Mayans, for example). However, there would have been more room for drama (there was too much spiritual contemplation) and just occasionally ensemble was not unanimous.

If viewed as a sort of compilation of ‘Purcell’s greatest hits’, this production is tolerable, and the wonderful music certainly holds the attention (albeit that the last 40 minutes or so are very gloomy). But if you are expecting or hoping to see a performance of Purcell and Dryden’s final collaboration, forget it.

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