There is something to be said about lowering expectations to avoid disappointment. This production of The Indian Queen is a case in point.
The original work, known as Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen, is actually a play by John Dryden and his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, with incidental music by the composer grafted on and therefore this is not a conventional opera.
The musical complement was cut short as a 45-minute collection, due to the premature death of Purcell in 1695, leaving no original performing edition of the work. The subject of the play is a typical Baroque tale involving a love mix-up set against a fanciful conflict between pre-Columbian Peru and Mexico.
What the audience get is a 3 ½ hour long and tedious pastiche of Purcell’s music – hymns, songs, and also his most solemn and dour funeral and religious music – pretty much played lentissimo, with spoken texts from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, a modern fiction by the Nicaraguan novelist Rosario Aguillar.
At the start, you may think you are in for a kind of masque; by the middle of the first half you know you are undergoing a rather solemn experience. Peter Sellars’ libretto has some arresting elements. It is about the brutality of the Spanish conquistadors in the New World, focusing on a Mayan princess, Teculihuatzin, the Indian Queen. She is given by her father to one of the Spanish Conquistadors, the notoriously cruel, Don Pedro de Alvaro. She grows infatuated with him and there are torrid yet tender, bedroom scenes, accompanied by erotic prose, from Aguillar’s novel, narrated with matching passion, by the actress Maitxell Carrero. Sellars even updates the story visually. Though events are set in the 16th century, the Conquistadors are depicted as soldiers in modern military combat uniform pointing their machineguns at the characters throughout the performance. Their presence and antics on stage lose their dramatic impact and become tiresome, if not ridiculous.
The three star rating is awarded thanks to the singing, dancing and acting. The singing is exceptionally fine in this production – the excellent American soprano, Julia Bullock, makes a notable London debut in the title role. Also memorable is Lucy Crowe, as Dona Isabel. These two sopranos in duet are a total knockout. Vince Yi, Thomas Walker, Noah Stuart and Anthony Roth Costanzo are all strikingly good. The ensemble works together well and the chorus is notably mellifluous and comes across as a harmonious unit.
The brightly-coloured costumes and modern sets successfully conjure the exoticism of Pre-Columbian American cultures. Some of Gronk’s decorative panels were evidently inspired by carved Mayan stelae and the floor of the stage with its dominant green calls to mind the Central American jungle in Jackson Pollock style. Deserving of special mention are the quartet of highly elastic dancers – Sonya Culling, Alistair Goldsmith, Lucy Starkey and Jack Thomson – who represent Mayan deities and weave among the principal characters.
While this production has its inspired moments and provides a marvellous anthology of Purcell’s music, beautifully played by a period chamber orchestra under the baton of Laurence Cummings, it does not cohere. Considered overall, it amounts to a somewhat tedious three and half hours in the theatre.