The Indian Queen Is A Beguiling Patchwork

By Londonist Last edited 113 months ago

Last Updated 27 February 2015

The Indian Queen Is A Beguiling Patchwork ★★★★☆ 4

Julia Bullock and Noah Stewart. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

There is much to enjoy in English National Opera’s production of Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen. Not just the music, which ranges from jaunty baroque dances to beguilingly chromatic laments, but also the contemporary dance, the colourful set designs and — perhaps above all — the engrossing story.

This last point requires some explanation. Unlike most operas staged at ENO, which form part of a well-established canon, The Indian Queen is a reinvention of director Peter Sellars. Purcell died in 1695, leaving various fragments to be cobbled into an opera by a struggling theatre company the following year. Sellars has taken these fragments and refashioned them into a post-colonial narrative of conquistadors in Mayan America.

The new story is based partly on Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguillar’s novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, which dramatises the first encounters between Mayans and Europeans. Between musical interludes Sellars inserts extracts relating the life and feelings of Teculihuatzin, a native princess who marries a Spaniard to become Doña Luisa. This transforms The Indian Queen (the opera) from orientalist fantasy into an often moving tale of intercultural fusion and conflict. It also gives The Indian Queen (the character) another voice — that of actress Maritxell Carrero, whose hugely expressive delivery is one of the show’s highlights — to complement Purcell’s musical one sung by Julia Bullock.

Into the mix Sellars also throws some of the composer’s most famous stand-alone works, including various anthems. The haunting Hear My Prayer, a favourite of English church choirs, concludes the first half. We see the Spaniards converting the Mayans to Christianity at gun-point, and then the Mayans using their new religious language to express the horrors of conquest.

This multi-disciplinary experiment comes with its incongruities, but on the whole works remarkably well. Not only is the story clearly told, but the artistic juxtapositions usually make rather than confuse points. The music-making is also of an exceptionally high standard, as we have come to expect at ENO. Ms Bullock made a very convincing Indian Queen, and there was some meltingly beautiful singing from countertenor Vince Yi as Mayan hero Hunahpu and soprano Lucy Crowe as Doña Isabel.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the sheer length of the performance: the first half lasts a full hour and forty minutes, and the whole evening runs to three and a half hours. In such a kaleidoscopic show, did we really need to hear all the music Purcell wrote for the original Indian Queen, including perhaps a dozen similar-sounding baroque dances and a few frankly uninspired solo and chorus numbers?

By Stephen Wilmot

There will be seven further performances of The Indian Queen at the Coliseum between Saturday 28th Feb and Saturday 14th March. The Londonist received press tickets.