We should all know by now what to expect these days from one of Peter Sellars’ opera productions. It is a little like watching Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham physically reinterpret music; after a while you begin to understand that gesture equates to another layer of language. And Mr Sellars does like his gestures. At worst it can look like a stage full of Korean traffic police, famous for their white gloves; at best there is something elemental about the gestures, akin to the movement of poplar leaves in a light breeze. Call me old-fashioned but I do go to an opera house in the hope of enjoying an evening of opera. I’ll go even further and bang on about “Prima la musica, dopo le parole.” If there is a hierarchy of co-creators when an opera is staged, surely the composer is, or should be, God above all others. For some time I have complained that opera reviews in the broadsheets and on review sites focus almost entirely on the production and say little about either the music or the singing. With his re-creation of The Indian Queen at ENO, Mr Sellars forces me to follow suit, which is a pity because I went to the Coliseum for the singing.
Some thirty years ago Mr Sellars became intrigued by music Purcell wrote for The Indian Queen, a play written and premiered in 1664 by Howard and Dryden (later to be poet laureate.) There were plans for it to be used as a libretto by Purcell, but this was downgraded to writing incidental music to the play in order to save astronomical production costs. King Arthur and The Fairy-Queen which had been popular successes barely broke even at the box office. The 17th century play, attented coincidentally by Samuel Pepys, explored the conflicts between the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Purcell completed some forty-five minutes of music before the performances were postponed and the theatre company bankrupted by an actors’ strike.
Mr Sellars hijacks the idea of a-play-with-music, substitutes a modern text by the Nicaraguan author Rosario Aguilar which is delivered almost entirely as spoken word by the compelling actress Maritxell Carrero, adds a modern dance troupe then proceeds to put poor old Purcell on the rack until his music is stretched way beyond its natural tensile strength. In fact, this review should more accurately be titled “Peter Sellars’ The Indian Queen with music by Purcell”. We stumbled out into the darkness some three and three quarter hours later. The evening’s duration was (over)-extended in part by articulating the musical episodes with a central American insect and bird soundtrack and in part by adding a lot of Purcell’s sacred music and repeating it seemingly endlessly.
The net result for this critic and for my friends was that this felt a very long and frankly at times tedious evening. The text was powerful enough to stand alone without someone taking it upon themselves to express an emotional response through the medium of dance. For example, to “illustrate” a beautifully expressed account of the transcendence of sexual union, we were exposed to tenor and soprano rolling about in a state of undress on a wooden block while four dancers in leotards made primeval gestures and an ill-matched pair of countertenors popped in and out of the bedroom like eunuchs in a harem. Surely at least some of the magic of Yin and Yang melting into each other with each “thrust” would have been lost if their marital bed had in fact been situated on the busy concourse of Westfield shopping centre, which is what this at times over-populated scene resembled.
Even more farcically, the tenor was entirely mute, whether clothed or unclothed, until Act Three; meanwhile the whole point of the Aguilar narrative was the impossible clash of cultures between a native ‘Indian’ queen and an ultra-white ultra-Right conquistador but both singers were Americans of African descent. I am not offended by nudity or representations of sexual acts on stage; however I did find myself dreaming of how much more entertaining an opera based on the story of The African Queen might have been.
I have no objection to Mr Sellars’ desire to shake us out of middle-class complacency by presenting important themes such as the oppressions of a patriarchal society, genocide and the shocking ability of sadists to hide their evil deeds behind the false shield of religious devotion. In fact I would have loved to see the Aguilar text presented as a one-woman show at the National Theatre or as a cross-arts performance dominated by dance at Sadler’s Wells. The text switches in and out from first person to third person narrative. Surely there is already enough theatre inherent in the text for this to be made into an opera about the two marriages – one inter-racial and the other abusive. With the singing talent available to Mr Sellars, all that was missing was a George Benjamin or a Joby Talbot to transform the libretto into an actual opera. But Mr Sellars was determined to tackle a creation epic as well, rather than focusing solely on the human drama and, it seems to me, he thinks it is high time he was fêted as the sole creator of his artistic projects.
On the plus side, I actually enjoyed the modern dance element of the evening with choreography by Christopher Williams. The dancers’ leotards were decorated in bold geometric designs which complemented the set designs (or more accurately, wall art) by Gronk. The scenery wasn’t particularly impressive, comprising a couple of patio chairs, a naively-painted two dimensional tank and the aforementioned block bed.
On the negative side, much of the music, apart from some short dances (of which Rameau would have been proud) that I presume were from the original project, comprised sacred choruses written for worship. Whilst this might have been deliberate to highlight the hypocrisy of those who massacre in the name of God, this music didn’t work for me in this dramatic and cultural context. Secondly, in my opinion this type of music needs to be sung by a choir of homogenous-sounding voices who specialise in sustained line-and-length singing in order to eke out every last drop of blood from each suspension. Asking a trained singer to sing like a cathedral chorister is a big ask – unless you happen to be the inimitable Lucy Crowe. Ensemble rocked on several occasions and individual voices poked above what should have been a smooth surface. And why the endless repetitions? When you add the failed attempt to achieve a boho-peasant look with the costumes on some chorus members and the compulsory hand signals, I found myself waiting for the opening chords to “YMCA.”
The wonderful Miss Crowe played a Spanish conquistador’s spouse in a rather dubious crocheted outfit and a black tea towel on her head. Doña Isabel married in hope and was apparently soon rejected by an increasingly violent man who preferred mass subjugation of the indigenous population to indulging in a spot of marital bliss. Miss Crowe sang her role with ravishing beauty. Having previously been impressed by her coloratura, in the simpler more plaintive style of Purcell she offered an extraordinary variety of timbres as well as an ability to float the softest and purest of sounds in the air above to linger and decay.
Her consort, Capitain General of the conquistadors, was played by Thomas Walker. Like Miss Crowe, the stuffing was knocked out of his characterisation by not having a libretto text to sing. From being a bustling military and Catholic zealot who brings the Indian Queen and her consort together for political reasons, in Act Three Scene Six he apparently sings to his wife of suicide. I’m doubly sorry as a practising psychotherapist that I totally missed that transition. However Mr Walker sang, “If grief has any pow’r to kill” very expressively, nicely matching the intensity of his wife’s grief in his one vocal moment.
The character of Mayan Shaman and Zapatista, played by Luthando Qave was largely supernumerary to the drama. The strange pseudo-Mexican text he was required to sing to Purcell’s music was little more than a distortion of serene music and sounded in this delivery like something out of Chichester Psalms. I know we had surtitles, but it was possible to hear the words sung by the other soloists. Sadly this was not so in Mr Qave’s case.
We were offered not one but two countertenors. One of the two, Vince Yi, who is already well on his way to stardom, as he has been spotted and employed by Max Cencic, sang with great purity and fluidity. I am convinced he sang at least as high as Franco Fagioli did in The Other Place recently.
Noah Stewart braved the chills of winter in London in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts (who knew the Spanish conquistadors preferred boxers to briefs?) for most of the evening. He acted well and sang his one brief (sic) “aria” nicely enough, but still failed to convince me he is actually a tenor not a light baritone. I liked the quality of his consort’s voice, the American soprano, Julia Bullock very much. If she had not had Miss Crowe cast beside her, she would have been very much the eponymous heroine of the piece. Laurence Cummings conducted what appeared to be a mixed orchestra of early and modern instruments with his usual dedication, but it was perhaps too much to ask him to direct all those lugubrious choruses from the pit.
(Photos : Richard Hubert Smith)