Thursday 26 March 2015

The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen - The Sixteen
Henry Purcell The Indian Queen, Daniel Purcell Masque of Hymen; The Sixteen; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A stylish and complete account of Henry and Daniel Purcell's music for Henry's last major stage work

Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen seems to have been somewhat in the news recently, his music having been part of Peter Sellars' extravaganza staged by ENO (see my review). Last year, to launch the Wigmore Hall's Henry Purcell: A Retrospective, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen performed Henry and Daniel Purcell's music for The Indian Queen allowing us to hear it theatrically unadorned (see my review) and now their disc, recorded shortly after the concert, has been issued on the Coro label. The disc includes all of Henry Purcell's music for The Indian Queen plus Daniel Purcell's The Masque of Hymen which was written for the piece's first revival. And the disc opens with one of Henry Purcell's catches.

One of the things that it is important to understand about The Indian Queen the theatrical work was that it was not intended to be on the grand scale of the semi-operas like The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. For one thing the company did not have the money, the production in 1695 came after yet more turmoil in the acting companies and The Indian Queen was based on a 30 year old play by Robert Howard (whose fourth wife Arabella was Henry Purcell's pupil) and John Dryden. In fact the original producers probably regarded it as a play with music (albeit, a lot of music) rather than a dramatick opera (their name for what we call semi-opera). Certainly with basic scenery and inexperienced actors (the good ones had all just left), Purcell's music was being called in to fill a lack. And this gave rise to one of the piece's distinctive quirks. The opening prologue, normally spoken, was sung to music by Purcell mainly because the singers would remedy the lack of experience of the actors.

The play concerns the fighting between Peru and Mexico (the Indian of the title in fact refers to the inhabitants of Peru!). The finale of the original semi-opera, produced in 1695 was rather downbeat, so at the 1696 revival a masque was added, written after the composer's death by Henry Purcell's brother/cousin Daniel Purcell. A rather Henry Purcell-ian (albeit without his imaginative quirk) sequence of choruses and solos.

Henry Purcell's music for The Indian Queen is quite diverse and does not fall into musical sections in the way that his music for other semi-operas did, understandably as the piece was being presented as a simple play. The First Music and Second Music (written for when the audience was arriving) is crisp with stylish rhythmic vitality then after an overture with a lively trumpet tune there is the prologue. This is in the form of a lovely duet for the Indian Boy (Jeremy Budd, tenor) and Indian Girl (Kirsty Hopkins, soprano), flexible in its structure and attractively varied in musical style. From act two, a symphony leads to a scene with Fame (Matthew Long tenor), Envy and followers (the tenors!) which calls from Purcell some of his characteristically characterful music.

Act three sees the most coherent scene with Ismeron (Eamonn Dougan, bass) conjuring up the God of Dreams (Julie Cooper, soprano). Then Dougan has a wonderful arioso like recitative followed by a perky aria. After a stately symphony the Cooper has a shapely solo with oboe obbligato. Another trumpet tune, and a scene with aerial spirits lead to the work's most famous number, the soprano solo I attempt from love's sickness to fly in vain which was beautifully sung by Cooper. Further instrumental music leads to the final stately scene, concluding with an eerie and quietly expressive chorus. (No wonder they wanted a toe-tapping finale for the 1696 revival).

For Daniel Purcell's Masque of Hymen, Hymen (Ben Davies, Bass) appears in an elaborate recitative, to be followed by a Julie Cooper as a follower in a perky solo. After a rather dancing chorus of praise, there is a vivid duet for a disgruntled married couple (Kirsty Hopkins and Eamonn Dougan). Hymen reappears to perk them up and the couple's second characterful duet sees them finally agreeing. There is then a sequence for Cupid, a lovely arioso like reciatative with two recorders for Julie Copper, then a solo with trumpet (Mark Dobell, tenor). The trumpet reappears for the trumpet tune before the grand chorus. It is attractively capable music in the Henry Purcell style, perhaps it lacks that last inch of inspiration but it is certainly very personable.

Clearly a budget production in 1695/6, the music does not need elaborate forces. Here the whole is performed by a flexible ensemble of eight singers (Julie Cooper and Kirsty Hopkins sopranos, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell and Matthew Long tenors,  Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan and Stuart Young basses) with, I think, the alto part in the choral ensembles being sung by one of the tenors. There is an accompanying instrumental ensemble of 17 players, all conducted stylishly by Harry Christophers.
This is an entrancing disc with the singers and instrumental ensemble on fine form. All provide engaging solo moments, whilst contributing to the ensembles.  None of the singers is a star name (yet), but all contribute finely to the disc and show a good sense of style. Jeremy Budd in particular copes wonderfully with the high tessitura of the tenor arias.

Harry Christophers draws crisp, lively singing and playing from everyone, with a very nice feel for the rhythmic bounce in the music without been too over incisive. Christophers does not try to 'do' anything with the music, this is a good, clean, straightforward and direct account of the music by the Purcell brothers/cousins. For me, that is quite enough though some may want a more highly coloured version of the score, but certainly for anyone wanting a palate cleanser after Peter Sellars' rich offering, then here it is.

(You can read my interview with tenor Matthew Long, who features on the disc, as he talks about his debut CD Till the stars fall.)

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - Catch [2.24]
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - The Indian Queen [56.59]
Daniel Purcell (1664-1717) - The Masque of Hymen [13.04]
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded 22-24 September 2014, St Augustine's Church, Holborn

CORO COR16129 1CD [72.27]
Elsewhere on this blog:

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