Monday, March 16, 2015

Purcell’s and Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen at English National Opera

By guest blogger Judy Dixey

When you realise you’re going to a Peter Sellars’ production, you wonder how much will be lunatic, and how much will be magic. Getting tickets to the penultimate performance at English National Opera’s London Coliseum at the last minute – such a treat – you plunge in without much research or preparation; are you going to have to read detailed programme notes to find out actually what’s going on?

Maritxell Carrero
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
The answer to that is “yes” but the programme is worth it. A fascinating historic note outlines the machinations, political and personnel, which surrounded the first production. Purcell’s untimely death, actor walk-outs, companies amalgamating, combined with changing tastes, all mean there is little left of the original. The original Dryden play had been a big success in the 1660s with its bizarre pagan rituals and colour, and it was this that Purcell, 30 years later, was to begin to bring to life in music in the year he died. There are only about 45 minutes of music extant, so in creating a 5-act opera, Peter Sellars has really made a new piece, using Purcell’s glorious music. For the libretto, he is inspired by The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, by Rosario Aguilar. This is written as a chronicle of the events, but giving a woman’s point of view. So he is able to focus on Teculihuatzin, the Indian Queen of the title, who was “given” to Don Pedro the Conquistador in marriage, but also as a secret agent for her people.

As a result, Mr. Sellars is able to engage the wonderful Puerto Rican actor Maritxell Carrero in the speaking roles of the Queen and her daughter, giving commentary and explanation, ramping up the emotion of Purcell’s plangent music. The Queen (peerless Julia Bullock, in her debut in London) falls head over heels in love with, and is then discarded by, the Conquistador, who returns to Spain to find a bride. All the while, there is the most outstanding singing from all the cast, and brilliant playing by the raised, in-sight orchestra. It’s all bad news for the Aztecs/Mexicans as they are betrayed and slaughtered.

The Indian Queen
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
Much commentary is also carried by four dancers, portraying the several ages of the Mayan Creation before the arrival of the Spanish, and then appearing as ghostly figures personifying the emotions of the final scenes. Think Rite of Spring in Nijinsky’s choreography, angular, jagged, but in this case, based on what is known of Mayan culture and images observed in their sacred places.

The superb cast also includes Lucy Crowe and Thomas Walker as the Spanish governors, and Noah Stewart plays the role of the caddish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. He does live up to the good looks which win over his Indian Queen. The ensemble has already performed this piece to great acclaim in Spain and Russia.

With all these forces, engaging music, voice, dance and design, Peter Sellars takes a piece languishing in 17th century obscurity and gives it a new life. He also brings in a certain 21st century feel, acknowledging and allowing for our contemporary attitude to, and deeper understanding of, the genocide of 400 years ago.

What an evening – fabulous Purcell – and a really interesting “new” opera for the 21st century!

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