Peter Sellars has done it again! Although billed as “Purcell’s” Indian Queen, the latest in his radical reinterpretations of opera is really Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen, the plot completely re-imagined as a vehicle for Sellars’ political and social views. This spectacular production left me more conflicted than many Sellars’ shows that I have seen. As a pure performance extravaganza, it certainly worked well. But in order for it to work, you needed to suppress any sense of history or musical integrity.
With his spiky lavatory-brush hair and right-on approach to contemporary politics, this impish and oh-so-American director has always taken a cavalier approach to opera, imposing his own views on whatever plot the composer might have chosen. His latest London production, notionally based on Purcell’s The Indian Queen (English National Opera, 26 Feb), is one of the most extreme examples of this approach, not least because he has jettisoned the text entirely and replaced it with spoken text of his own choosing – principally extracts from the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar. Aguilar’s novel aims to “recapture the woman’s view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. The historical setting has been changed from the years before the Spanish conquest of Central America (and a conflict between the kings of Peru and Mexico) to a post-conquest scenario where the brutality of the Spanish invaders is intermixed with a curious love story between Teculihuatzin (the Mayan Indian Queen) and Don Pedro de Alvarado, one of the conquistadors.
The music is based on Purcell’s unfinished ‘semi opera’ The Indian Queen, original intended as incidental music to Dryden’s play. It was first performed in 1695 in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a few months before Purcell’s death. Only about 50 minutes of Purcell’s survives, consisting of a series of musical interludes at the end of each act, never quite achieving the status of typical late 17th century ‘masques’. The music is difficult to programme in concerts – a 50 minute series of seemingly unrelated short pieces of very different temperaments and moods. But Purcell’s music has the ability to delve into unbearably intense emotional depths, so it deserves to be heard far more than it is.
To that extent, Sellars has done Purcell’s music a service, in that it gets performed. This is a co-production between ENO and the Russian Perm State Opera and the Teatro Real, Madrid, and had been performed in both places, to varying degrees of success, before its London opening. To turn it into a full length (indeed, an over-long) opera, Sellars has added other music by Purcell, sacred and secular. Not content with the new post-conquest story, Sellars’ opens at the beginning of time, Mayan style, with five scenes from Mayan creation myths, with dancing to a backdrop of what was supposed to be jungle noise, but was in practice rather uncomfortable white-noise broadcast rather too loudly from loudspeakers. We were sent out for the interval with an almost cartoon-style massacre and rivers of blood, all to the accompaniment of ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well in Madrid. Sellars’ trademark mannered infant-class gestures featured in many of the chorus’s actions – something I have never got used.
The staging, lighting, costumes and the large painted panels were all bold and impressive. And the music was outstanding, with generally excellent singing from the youthful soloists. Lucy Crowe excelled as Doña Isabel, notably in O Solitude and See, even night herself is here. Bass Luthando Qave impressed as a Mayan Shaman, as did Noah Stewart as Don Pedro de Alvarado. Vince Yi (Hunahpú) is billed as a countertenor, but his voice had the timbre of a male soprano. Luisa Julia Bullock (as Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa) displayed far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my taste and for Purcell’s music, although she impressed in her late duet O Lord, rebuke me not with Lucy Crowe. The text was extremely well declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero, portrayed as Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin and Don Pedro, and therefore of mixed race; something key to the text.
Laurence Cummings directed the ENO house band, most playing modern instruments, but showing just how far they have come in recent year to understanding period performance – something that Cummings must take much of the responsibility and credit for. The orchestra was lifted to almost stage level, making them visible to most of the audience. An unfortunately un-named specialist period instrument continuo group deserved the special applause they got at the end. Laurence Cummings got into the mood of Sellars’ directorial style, pushing the music to its limits albeit always within his own deep understanding of period style. Notable were several moments when he paused, mid phrase, producing very effective dramatic moments. My only musical quibble was with the chorus, whose unadulterated vibrato I would have found excessive in Wagner. I know that is just what they might have had to sing the following evening, and that it is hard to rein in vibrato, but unless they can do it I do wonder if bringing a specialist choir might be a solution to what is, too often, an ENO issue.
I always approach Sellars productions with a degree of trepidation, as this evening was no exception. But, despite everything arguing against it, I quickly got into the spectacular of the production and the curious story. Yes, it was too long, but the music was something special. I tried not to like it, but just couldn’t.