Friday 27 February 2015

Heavenly length? - Peter Sellars' The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen - ENO - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The Indian Queen - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Henry Purcell/Peter Sellars The Indian Queen; Crowe, Bullock, Stewart, Yi, dir: Peter Sellars cond: Laurence Cummings; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 26 2015
Star rating: 3.0

Love it or hate it - Peter Sellars' theatrical re-invention of Purcell

Unlike Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen, his music for his last semi-opera The Indian Queen would not stand up theatrically on its own. And the play to which The Indian Queen is coupled, by Robert Howard and John Dryden, is probably of archaeological interest only. Theatre director Peter Sellars' solution to this was to produce his own theatrical version of The Indian Queen, adding new spoken text as well as further music by Purcell. Done in a co-production with Perm State Opera and Teatro Real, Madrid, the production was presented at the London Coliseum as the final part of Sellars residency with English National Opera. Sellars directed, with set designs by Gronk, costumes by Dunya Ramicova and choreography by Christopher Williams. The cast included Vince Yi, Julia Bullock, Lucy Crowe, Thomas Walker, Noah Stewart, Anthony Roth Costanzo and Luthando Qave. We heard the opening night, on 26 February 2015 conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings.

The Indian Queen - ENO - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The Indian Queen - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The original play for The Indian Queen treated its 16th century South American setting as simply an exotic location, whereas Sellars in his new version sought to explore the full impact of the violence of conquistadors on the native South American culture. Sellars other problem was that the semi-opera form was predicated on only minor characters singing, the main roles being taken by non-singing actors. In order to bring the work closer to our conception of opera, Sellars had to import a great deal of extra music. So we had some of the great solo song, O Solitude, Music for a While, Sweeter than Roses plus some of his church anthems including Hear my prayer, O Lord and Remember no, Lord, our offences.

In place of the original dialogue, Sellars used a text based on the novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar which chronicles the Spanish conquest of South America from a female point of view. The texts that we heard were written from the point of view of Dona Isabel (the wife of one of the conquistadors, Don Pedrarias Davita) and the native born mistress, Teculihuatzin, of another (Don Pedro de Alarado) and finally the daughter of these latter.

But Sellars seems to have replaced one set of problems with another. In place of non-singing lead roles, we had non-speaking singers as the whole of the spoken text was carried by the actress Maritxell Carrero who articulated the thoughts of the characters on stage whilst the singers acted in dumb-show. Whilst there is no doubt that Aguilar's book is a fascinating one, I did not feel that by simply disgorging large chunks of it on stage that we gave it theatrical life. The whole evening was rendered somewhat dramatically inert by this extreme reliance on the single person of Carrero.

Julia Bullock, Noah Stewart - The Indian Queen - ENO - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Julia Bullock, Noah Stewart - The Indian Queenphoto credit Richard Hubert Smith
Sellars other problem was that Purcell did not write any music to dramatise the violent events depicted in Aguilar's text, so that the music had to come at moments of prayer and moments of quiet. An extreme example of this was the end of Act Two which depicted the massacre of the South American Indians by the Spanish which was all done in mime whilst Carrero recited a long, thrilling passage from Aguilar's book, only when the massacre was over did the music start with Purcell's Hear my Prayer sung by the dead.

Sellars admirably used a great deal of dance in the evening (choreography by Christopher Williams). Much of Purcell's music for the original play is instrumental and Sellars prefixed the action with an enactment of the Mayan creation myths by four dancers (Sonya Cullingford, Alistair Goldsmith, Lucy Starkey, Jack Thomson)  whose presence throughout the evening was ubiquitous as the gods constantly seemed to move in the human world.

This was a long evening, three hours 40 minutes in the theatre with one 25 minute interval (Purcell's original music for The Indian Queen lasts under an hour) and somehow Purcell's music got lost amidst all the multi-layering of Sellars singular theatrical vision.

For me the evening, though full of good things, did not add up to an inspiring theatrical event and I found the whole thing, frankly, far too long. The drama was embedded in a series of rituals with much of Act two being devoted to the appearance of the Gods in the heroine, Teculihuatzin's dream. The evening concluded with a series of rituals for Teculihuatzin's death which rather left the drama being carried by Carrero's narrative with the self-dramatisations of Teculihuatzin's daughter. But there were clearly many people there who bought in to Sellars' vision and the opera was warmly applauded at the end (a cynic might comment that those who might have booed had left at the interval as many did).

Lucy Crowe - The Indian Queen - ENO - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Lucy Crowe - The Indian Queen photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
The stand out musical performance was from Lucy Crowe as Dona Isabel, and it was glorious to hear her beauty of tone and  line in such numbers as O Solitude. In Act Four she and Julia Bullock's Teculihuatzin sang Purcell's anthem O Lord, rebuke me not which was for me one of the musical highlights of the evening. Julia Bullock as Teculihuatzin was one of a number of cast members who have travelled with Sellars and appeared in the other incarnations of this production. She has a lithely attractive soprano and justified the weight the production placed on her.

Much of the musical interest was placed on the two counter tenors Vince Yi and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Some of this is inevitable, given Purcell's writing for that voice but I am still unclear why Yi sang Sweeter than Roses during the wedding night of Don Pedro (Noah Stewart) and Teculihuatzin (Julia Bullock), thus effectively putting a third person in the bed!

Yi has a fine, slim-line counter-tenor voice capable of going extremely high and he went high often. Too often in fact, as there were too many moments when he was singing in his very upper range where the tone thinned. Costanzo was an apt pair, and the two had a number of fine duets together. But their very ubiquity in the evening led me to wonder why the roles could not have been cast from some of the fine British counter-tenors around.

Noah Stewart as Don Pedro was woefully underused. It was wonderful to see him making his ENO debut but his vocal contribution was restricted to one solo, the wonderful George Herbert setting With sick and famished eyes and a duet, and he did not sing at all in the long first half. Thomas Walker provided strong support as the other conquistador, Don Pedrarias. Whilst Luthando Qave was theatrically vivid as the Mayan Shaman but I found his tone in Purcell's music too rugged for my taste.

Perhaps it was my imagination but much of the music seemed to be pitched high, with many of the singers at the upper end of their voices, as if whole chunks of the piece were being performed a tone or so too high.

Julia Bullock, Vince Yi - The Indian Queen - ENO - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Julia Bullock, Vince Yi - The Indian Queen photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
On the evening's own terms Maritxell Carrero gave a fine performance as the narrator, and the text she was speaking was undoubtedly riveting though, as I have said, for me it did not fit into the evening properly. And, as with some of the singers, I again worried why the role could not have been locally cast. Though billed as a residency by Peter Sellars, the event did very much have the feeling of a bought in travelling production for which ENO provided chorus and orchestra.

The ENO chorus was on fine form, and they were given plenty to do. There were, however, one or two choruses which sounded under rehearsed and quite simply I did not want to hear a robust opera house chorus singing Purcell. For me works like Hear my Prayer should be sung by groups like The Sixteen.

The orchestra was placed high in the pit, and had been expanded to include at least three theorbos, two harpsichords, recorders and organ. It was a big band, and made a big vivid noise, but the quieter moments were all finely done too. Under Laurence Cummings capable direction the instrumental music had a vivid theatrical life.

The designs by Gronk were simply glorious, and one of the most memorable parts of the evening. Based around a series of flat panels of varying sizes each covered with coloured abstract pattern inspired by Mayan art, the results had a theatrical life of their own. We were less taken with Dunya Ramicova's costumes which looked as if someone had made a quick trip to Peru and bought a job lot from the first tourist shop they came to.

Sellars highly personal theatrical vision was ably brought to life by everyone involved, but it was a singularity of vision which meant that if you did not buy into it then the evening was lost on you. And for me, Purcell's music somehow got lost in the mix.
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