Ex Cathedra’s Spirited Revival of Purcell’s The Indian Queen in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell’s The Indian Queen and music of the South American Baroque: Soloists, Choir and Ensemble of Ex Cathedra (including members of the Fitzwilliam Quartet) / Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Birmingham Town Hall, 17.2.2019. (RD)

Boy – Ashley Turnell
Girl – Amy Wood, Louise Prickett
Fame – James Robinson
Envy – Greg Skidmore
Followers of Envy – James Robinson, Ashley Turnell
Ismeron – Lawrence White
God of Dreams – Katie Trethewey
Two Aerial Spirits – Harriet Hougham Slade, Ashley Turnell
Soprano duet – Louise Prickett, Martha McLorinan
Solo soprano – Amy Wood, Ellie Sperling
High Priest – Lawrence White

Musicians: Fitzwilliam Quartet – Lucy Russell, Marcus Barcham Stevens (violins), Alan George (viola), Sally Pendlebury (cello)
Oboe – Gail Hennessy, Mark Radcliffe
Bassoon/Dulcian – Andrew Watts
Trumpet/Cornetto – Simon Munday
Harp – Oliver Wass
Lute – Lynda Sayce
Timpani/Percussion – Simone Rebello
Organ/Harpsichord – Rupert Jeffcoat

How should one define Purcell’s last major work, The Indian Queen? It is usually designated a semi-opera, but in some respects, incidental music for a play, a kind of verbal and vocal addition and in some respects occasional commentary, might be more accurate. It does not feature nearly as much music as, say, The Fairy Queen, or Dioclesian – the latter taken from a Jacobean play by, it is thought, Fletcher and Massinger. The present work too is based on an earlier Restoration (1660s) collaboration, by Sir Robert Howard, a former Royalist and a not unproductive playwright after the Restoration, with some (uncertain how much) input by the ubiquitous John Dryden.

However we term it, Purcell’s input to The Indian Queen contains some vivid and dramatic music; not, one might submit: his most inventive (the beguiling chromaticism he inherited from Lully via his young teacher, Pelham Humfrey, is mostly absent; possibly in part due to a hitch in the initial copying process). It has thus been characterised (Curtis Price) as ‘an imperfectly preserved score trapped in a virtually unrevivable play’.  But it remains – at its best – quite meaty stuff, as this ultra-reliable and spirited revival by Ex Cathedra, inspired by its founder and conductor, Jeffrey Skidmore, showed. Some have said it is a joyous conclusion to a career painfully cut short.

The story, a clash of empires extolling the heroism of a spirited Mexican (Aztec) queen – who seemingly does not sing even a recitative – battling to ward off the encroaching Peruvian Incas and is not unlike the kind of exotic saga popular in early 19th-century opera. Into this is brought a love angle of almost Shakespearian pathos, the queen (Zempoalla) falling in love with her former arch-enemy, latterly recruited to her side, the famous Montezuma.

Apart from the Act V section, where the scene depicts the high priest presiding over what seems to be an impending human sacrifice, a clutch of the musical sections, including a series of – in this performance – very appealingly sung solos, are more like a moral commentary on the action: a condemnation of national aggrandisement; a strangely acquiescent anticipation of the impending invasion by greedy Europeans; the briefest of salutations to the queen. Add to these the aria (much of the play is cast in iambics) ‘Seek not to know what must not be revealed’ (the soprano Katie Trethewey, here on scintillating form); the duet ‘Ah how happy are we! From human passions free’; ‘They tell us that your mighty powers above Make perfect our joys and your blessings by Love’; and so on. Pretty basic, pre-Handelian stuff (and in several cases we frustratingly do not know where in the play they should be located); but cheeringly uplifted by the music. ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly in vain’ was particularly enchanting, thanks to the delightful soprano soloist, Ellie Sperling, one of this year’s cohort of Ex Cathedra scholars.

Things enliven when a sense of witchcraft, recalling the darker doings of Dido and Aeneas, explores a seamier side. ‘By the croaking of the toad’ (well characterised by an excellent, expressive bass, Lawrence White) goes on to visualise ‘crested adders’, ‘twisted serpents’, a ‘visage fierce and black’ and a ‘grim death’s-head’. Earlier, we encounter ‘curst fiends of hell’ (tenor James Robinson doing the exorcising). The classic nasty extract, sometimes heard on its own, is the brilliant double act of a bass plus sneering tenor duet: ‘What flatt’ring noise is this, At which my snakes all hiss?’ as cheekily hilarious as an indecent Purcell catch. Taking the lead is Envy: the bass, Ex Cathedra’s ever-reliable Greg Skidmore, on especially amusing form with his snaky, fawning attendants.

It has to be said that some of the most satisfying contributions by Purcell – a series of rivetingly played summoning airs for baroque trumpet (Simon Munday) apart – are the vivid contributions from the small band (twelve strong), with the adroit strings furnished by the now (amazingly) 50-years-old, much in demand Fitzwilliam Quartet, which despite changing personnel can boast to be one of the oldest such ensembles in the world. Overture, Symphonies and some cavorting Dance music, in which alert paired oboes (Gail Hennessy, Mark Radcliffe) proved especially vital; but Ex Cathedra’s instrumental team, under Skidmore’s shrewd, experienced nursing, shone at every point: organ, archlute, harp and all strings, solo cello especially. This was vibrant, exciting playing. And to cap it all, some thrilling contributions from a very impudent and insistent mixed drums and intermittent percussion, presided over with fabulous rhythmic alertness by the phenomenally nimble Simone Rebello.

Apart from the snaky hissings, the vivid time changes often found in Purcell, and needing careful judging, lent much to the overall performance (the concluding masque, supplied after Purcell’s death by his composer younger brother, Daniel, was not included here). Another of the composer’s landmark characteristics is his repeating of individual words for effect: ‘mighty, mighty’; a brief, unexpected snatch of chromaticism (‘Open thy unwilling eyes, While bubbling springs their music keep, That use to lull thee in thy sleep’); one alluring, spare sequence for cello (Sally Pendlebury) and archlute (Lynda Sayce: ‘Ah! How happy we’); and a glorious virtually equal voice duet for soprano (Louise Prickett) and soprano or mezzo (Martha McLorinan) – ‘We the spirits of the air’ which takes off beautifully and gets reiterated enticingly by the chorus.

We are not finished with the charms of Central and South America. Before this Aztec quasi-drama Skidmore had some very appropriate music to offer as a first half.

His incredibly fresh and persistent personal researches in sundry music libraries of (at least) Mexico and Bolivia (and in part in the United States) have earned him widespread praise, not least for the most obvious publically available fruits of his labours: the series of superb recordings he has made with his choir on the Hyperion label (CDA 68114, 67600, 67524, plus 30030). Here – in the handsomely refurbished Birmingham Town Hall, one of Ex Cathedra’s welcoming regular venues, thanks not least to a very acceptable acoustic – he focused especially on Juan de Araujo (1646-1712), Spanish-born, later organist of Lima cathedral in the Peruvian capital, and for three decades Maestro de Capilla of the wealthy cathedral at Sucre, one of the major centres in central Bolivia. His music is, we are told, the earliest printed polyphony produced on the South American continent.

‘Dixit Dominus’, one of Araujo’s larger sacred works (there are few) is regrettably, although perhaps understandably for its time, dominated by interspersed Plainsong. Such full-blooded choral interstices as there are proved sprightly and confident. More alluring was the birdlike, agreeably protracted double soprano duet ‘En el muy gran Padre Ignacio’, presumably a tribute to the great Jesuit theologian and figurehead of the Counterrevolution, St. Ignatius Loyola. Organ, harp and archlute provided a beautifully lulling backdrop to ‘Silencio, pacito’, a fitting lullaby for a great lady. By the time we get to Francisco Hernández and the somewhat similarly named Gaspar Fernandez, the language has shifted from Spanish to the Aztec Nahuatl language (by way of variety, for the exciting introit, heard as on the discs, we heard the Inca language Quechua): both pieces are short and slow, both attractive: the first a tender Marian anthem, the second an exquisite lullaby with a refined semi-chorus.

Another supremely gifted composer, the Spaniard Diego José de Salazar, born the same year as Purcell 1659), a boy chorister at and subsequently maestro de Capilla at the spectacular Seville Cathedral, yielded a thunderous, even hilarious tribute to bull running and bullfighting, the whole choir fandangoing and chasing along in romping form, with prodding recorder, and bassoon (Andrew Watts) encouraging them along. It turns unexpectedly midway into a kind of prayer, before resuming its explosive racing.

Returning to Araujo, ‘Come here, you ruffians’ features solo voices emerging from the choir, another of the satisfying details elsewhere in this concert. The spirit of the dance lasted right through to the last Araujo piece, ‘¡ay andar!’: ‘Come on, shake those tambourines…You’ll be condemned to chilblains if you try to dodge the dancing’: a perfect outlet for the impish drum section, before a beautiful and moving recessional emptied the stage in conclusion of a beautifully managed first half: a scrumptious appetiser for the Purcell to come.

There will be a further performance of the Latin American repertoire at St Mary’s Church, Warwick, on March 26 and Ex Cathedra’s performance of The Indian Queen will be repeated at St John’s Smith Square, London on Friday 17 May at 7.30pm.

Roderic Dunnett

For more about Ex Cathedra click here.

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