Musical Strengths of Purcell’s Indian Queen Marred by Baleful, Self-indulgent Production

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, The Indian Queen: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Christopher Bucknall) of the English National Opera, Laurence Cummings (conductor). Coliseum, London, 26.2.2015 (MB)

Hunahpú – Vince Yi
Teculihuatzin – Julia Bullock
Doña Isabel – Lucy Crowe
Don Pedrarias Dávila – Thomas Walker
Don Pedro de Alvarado – Noah Stewart
Ixbalanqué – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Mayan Shaman, Zapatista – Luthando Qave
Leonor – Maritxell Carrero
Mayan Deities (dancers) – Sonya Cullingford, Alistair Goldsmith, Lucy Starkey, Jack Thomson
Tecum Umán – Jack Thomson
Leonor as child – Rosanna Beacock

Peter Sellars (director)
Gronk (set designs)
Dunya Ramicova (costumes)
James F. Ingalls (lighting)
Christopher Williams (choreography)

As Peter Sellars might enjoin us, ‘Hey, let’s accentuate the positive!’ Or, as his relentlessly hyper-ventilating character, Leonor, might loquaciously, nonsensically have put it, ‘Throbbing through the long, hot, dangerous night, he, o he, that wondrous mixture of virility and divinity, ah, how the thrusting of his white, masculine loins and my ever-flowing beauteous womanhood must maximise and conjoin all that is awesomely towering and breathtakingly divine in river-creating accentuation of the, o, how ecstatic, the majestically positive.’

I had better start again: let us attend to the virtues of this performance. They were entirely musical, and in many cases, estimable indeed. Much to my surprise, after his dry, charmless Messiah for ENO, Laurence Cummings conducted an often richly expressive account of Purcell’s music. There was even, wonder of wonders in this puritanical age, vibrato – more, admittedly would have been welcome – to be heard from the violins. A decent-sized orchestra and well-endowed – sorry, Leonor – continuo group gave as fine a ‘live’ account as I can recall of much of the composer’s greatest music, its chromaticism beguiling and disconcerting in equal measure. The occasional ill-chosen tempo aside – an absurdly rushed Trumpet Tune, if I remember correctly – the music took its time, its melancholy and, on occasion, languor permitted to tell. I am not sure, moreover, that I have heard more committed choral singing of Purcell’s sacred music – what it was doing there is of course another matter – than that from the ENO Chorus, its expressive range pleasingly unconstrained by ‘early musicke’ dogma.

Much of the solo singing was very good indeed too. Lucy Crowe’s soprano brought welcome lyricism, elegance of line, and emotional depth, contrasting with the lighter, yet not slighter contributions of Julia Bullock. The two counter-tenors were more variable.  Vince Yi was accurate, and rather more than that in ‘Music for a While’, but his voice, especially in its higher reaches, was somewhat thin of tone. Anthony Roth Costanzo struggled with intonation and register earlier on – almost as if he were expecting the music to be sung at a different pitch – but revealed himself later to be the more expressively-voiced of the two. Noah Stewart’s virile yet sensitive – yes, Leonor – tenor had one wishing for more. (We heard nothing at all from him in the first half, although we saw plenty.) I hope that ENO will invite him back for a more musically substantial role. Likewise Thomas Walker, whose stylish contributions were not the least of the evening’s virtues. Luthando Qave was a little woolly of tone.

Had we been treated to a concert of Purcell’s music, that would have been all well and good. Alas, we had Peter Sellars’s intervention to contend with. The programme description ‘unfinished semi-opera in five acts with a prologue by Henry Purcell, completed by Peter Sellars’ was, at least in one way, uncharacteristically modest; for what we had was, the ‘soundtrack’ notwithstanding, entirely the baleful creation of Sellars’s half-baked ‘ideas’. Doubtless they would have been thought daringly post-colonial, and will be praised as such by fashion victims; yet, in truth, there was little of the ‘post-’ to them. There are problems, to put it mildly, with the twenty-first century presentation of Purcellian semi-opera, but I cannot imagine that we could have been worse off with something approximating to the original play, described by Sellars as a ‘bizarre fantasy’. It takes one to know one, I suppose. I can only assume that the spoken texts from Rosario Aguilar’s The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma became more thoroughly lost in translation. What we hear seems in its banality to cater to the lower end of the Woman’s Own market, an irredeemable mixture of very mild soft pornography and tedious ‘right-on’ platitudes.

Sellars seems to present, although I may have misunderstood, an unthinking mixture of Aztec and Mayan civilisation conquered by the Spanish. The patronising presentation of the ‘Other’ as primitive victims strains toward, never quite reaching, the intellectual coherence and emotional depth of a gap-year student’s attempts to find him- or herself. Of what might interest us about other civilisations there is little, unless one counts a risibly choreographed parody of Mayan mysticism at the beginning, replete, I am sorry to say, with recorded generic ‘jungle’ sounds. There is still less to credit in the gaudy, jumble-sale-style costumes. ‘Foreign’ people are so colourful, and unspoilt, you see. Designs, attractive enough in a one-dimensional, touristic sort of way, are by ‘Gronk’, who ‘since the early 1970s has been using guerrilla street performance, video, film, photography and conceptual art to upstage the mainstream art world and proclaim the outside existentialism of Chicana/or artists.’ At least we are spared the participation of Bill Viola, although we are certainly not spared the ardours of a preposterously long evening: three hours and forty minutes, with one interval. It seems much longer, especially during the second of the two acts, despite its slightly greater dramatic coherence.

Then there is Leonor – who, for the most part, confusingly appears to speak as her mother, Teculihuatzin, lover to Don Pedro (Leonor’s father). It would, I hope, be difficult to find anyone in polite society who would not be utterly horrified by the genocidal acts of the Spanish conquerors. So banal and excitable are Leonor’s interventions, though, that one almost begins to sympathise. Were the squaddies to put her out of our misery, it would unquestionably be a merciful release. I do not know whether the actress, Maritxell Carrero, was simply following orders. However, even if one could overlook the aggravating mispronunciation of words such as ‘lieutenant’, she came across as something close to an ‘amusing’ 1970s caricature of an ‘exotic foreigner’. Perhaps, however, such caricatured North American presentation is creditably true to this Indian Queen, for ultimately, so self-indulgent a show seems concerned with little beyond a director’s self-imposition upon self-righteously adopted ‘causes’. If ‘self’ appears too many times in the preceding sentence, that sorry deed, at least, has not been carried out entirely unknowingly.


Mark Berry

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