The Indian Queen, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2015Posted on 27 February 2015
This opera, or rather semi-opera (entertainment combining acting, singing and dance), was not really complete when Purcell died in 1695. Though it had already been performed, the loss of the Company’s main dramaturge and many of its singers compromised the result. Not therefore in the state that the composer would wish, and rather than attempt a mere archaeological revival, Peter Sellars has resuscitated it using all Purcell’s original music plus more, along with a narrative arc based on Rosario Aguilar’s book The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, dealing with the appalling loss and destruction suffered by the Mayan civilisation of central America under the Spanish conquistadors.
Imagine Islamic State taking the whole of Iraq and destroying almost all the ancient texts in Sumerian and Akkadian — thankfully impossible since many of these are in Western museums. Yet this is exactly what Bishop Diego de Landa went to some trouble to do despite local priests and intellectuals begging him to desist. Over four hundred years later the remnants of Mayan texts lay undeciphered because an Old Wykehamist, ignorant of all modern Mayan languages, refused to let anyone publish work he didn’t agree with. Eventually he died … and only thereafter could Mayan texts be deciphered and read correctly. You couldn’t make it up!
Intellectual vandalism and pig-headedness is one thing, genocide another and Sellars deals with this, but in a very gentle way. So gentle it seems almost sublime when Don Pedro de Alvarado takes his little daughter to meet local villagers who must bow down to her before being executed. This daughter, offspring of his passionate union with a Mayan princess (The Indian Queen) who intends to subvert him but falls in love with him, describes at the end of the opera how her mother has lost her mind and reverted to the ancient gods rather than the Christianity she earlier embraced. It is a touching moment, particularly as the daughter in her mature form is present throughout the opera as a narrator, a role brilliantly played by Maritxell Carrero in her elegantly sexy black dress.
Musically, Purcell’s composition conveys feelings in a way usually associated with later composers, and baroque specialist Laurence Cummings has done a very fine job with the orchestra and its collection of various period instruments. The singing parts were relatively brief, but superbly performed. Lucy Crowe was particularly notable with her glorious purity of tone as Doña Isabel, and counter-tenors Vince Yi and Anthony Roth Costanzo were both in fine voice. As the Indian Queen, Julia Bullock sang beautifully, with Noah Stewart a stunning picture of male virility as her husband Don Pedro — his voice and acting both top rate.
The production starts with four dancers representing the four gods of creation in the Mayan creation myth — the Popul Vuh — all lying in different directions as befits the four roads to the cardinal points of the compass. The dancers reappear from time to time during the opera, in slow and sensitive choreography by Christopher Williams, offset by backdrops and painted canvasses deisgned by Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), very well lit by James F. Ingalls. These give an excellent feeling for Mesoamerica, yet the setting was the modern world with the now ubiquitous fatigues and machine guns for conquistadors, and colourful casuals for the Maya. The idea is to make it all timeless, though that aspect is less successful.
All told it seems to me this is exactly what the ENO should be doing, as well as a sprinkling of more popular operas. It is essentially a new creation, though with music by England’s most brilliant seventeenth century composer — Italian opera it is not, and both parts end in silence as the light on stage dims and slowly vanishes. Remarkable.
Performances continue on various dates until March 14 — for details click here.