As with many of Purcell’s works, The Indian Queen is an awkward beast. His final work before his death, it remains incomplete at just forty-five minutes long and its performance history is more chequered than its patchwork of scenes (debuting sometime in 1695).
Of course, it’s not really an opera at all but a masque, comprising songs, dances and monologues in the English tradition of semi-opera. The plot is based upon a play by Sir Robert Howard (in collaboration with John Dryden) which tells of the Spanish invasion of Peru and Mexico and was performed some thirty years earlier.
Except in this production at ENO, directed by Peter Sellars, the whole piece has been heavily amended. Retaining the Central American setting, Sellars has taken inspiration from the Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguillar’s novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma that, based on true events, explores the Conquistador invasion. The focus is Teculihuatzin, the daughter of an Indian chieftain who marries Don Pedro de Alvarado – she is meant to be a double agent but soon falls in love with him. The story is thus told from the feminine viewpoint: the titular ‘queen’ and her plight, torn between love for her foreign husband and duty to her people. This is put under further strain when Don Pedro commits massacre (in the Main Temple of Tenochtitlan - a key episode of the Spanish Conquest).
Much of the story is narrated in monologue by Maritxell Carrero, with set backdrops courtesy of Chicano artist Gronk that blend modern graffiti with colourful Mayan design. There is also dancing from a quartet of dancers representing mythological beings creating the world and meddling in its affairs, their stunning interpretive choreography mimicking Mayan poses. The costumes of the lead protagonists, meanwhile, are modern dress, drawing a parallel with modern conquerors. All this alongside Purcell’s music – not only from his original The Indian Queen but with additions from both his sacred and secular output. The orchestra is suitably raised from the pit, proving as much a pleasure to watch as to listen.
It may seem like a hodgepodge of styles, but under Sellars’ direction it works seamlessly. The stately beauty of Purcell’s music with a somewhat savage plot is an odd juxtaposition that’s exaggerated in this production, but if anything it brings out new qualities in the score, becoming something primal, erotic and modern. Having Teculihuatzin’s sexually charged wedding night accompanied by the fluttering counterternor of Vince Yi is a daring choice, but mostly the plight of the Mayans finds new poignancy in the yearning melodies and aching beauty of Purcell’s music.
The performances, too, are beautiful. Lucy Crowe’s Doña Isabel is a figure of restraint, with a pure and perfectly controlled tone (particularly in her rendition of “O Solitude”); by contrast American soprano Julia Bullock’s Teculihuatzin (making her ENO debut in a role written for her) is an impassioned performer. Noah Stewart’s Don Pedro is the image of masculinity with a wonderful tenor voice – his duet with Thomas Walker’s Don Pedrarias Dávila is a real highlight.
At three and a half hours long (with interval), Purcell’s original has been vastly extended – Sellar’s production is perhaps too long and at times self-indulgent. It’s also a monumental feat, incorporating multiple artistic disciplines into a grand and cohesive whole.
Watch: The Indian Queen runs at the Coliseum until 14th March.