The Indian Queen by Purcell (revised and completed
by Peter Sellars; sung and performed well by everyone else).
To start with, it has to be said that the singing in particular is exceptionally fine in this ENO production. The sets by the inestimable Gronk and costumes by Dunya Ramicova and Danielle Domingue are visually striking and eye-pleasingly attractive. Of course the story has been updated by director Peter Sellars visually, so that even though they’re talking about the 16th century rape of South America you’re encouraged to see the 21st and 20th century rapes of other parts of the world. I got it! And I’m so used to it now as a trope that I didn’t even get annoyed.
Unfortunately, the musical and dramatic reconstruction of this unfinished work is dire. I came out thinking of a phrase for this approach and this kind of production; I call it Highbrow Pretentious. So let me just say how lugubrious and tedious sitting through this evening was. First, Sellars has pieced together a score based on Purcell’s unfinished original, adding some hymns, some songs, and also his most solemn and dour funeral and religious music; it’s all pretty much lentissimo. It becomes very wearing.
By way of contrast, when the team that created Crazy for You (book by Ken Ludwig, direction by Mike Ockrent) got together they found some snappy Gershwin melodies to add to their rewrite of Girl Crazy and were careful to vary the rhythms and tempos of the songs. On the evidence of this particular Indian Queen, Peter Sellars needs to learn something from the approach of such Broadway compilations—especially their concept of engaging the audience instead of bludgeoning them into submission.
At the start I thought we were in for a kind of masque; by the middle of the first half I felt I was attending a solemn and unstoppable dirge. There is virtually no dramatic pulse. It was like a particularly depressing funeral staged by the Puritans that insists you are attending a worthy event and, if you giggle, you will be lynched. And Laurence Cummings (who has elsewhere been admirable) conducted as if he were competing for the slowest tempi ever to emanate from a podium. This show needs some pace and maybe even a few laughs, even a tragedy needs some peaks and valleys.
The story is mainly conveyed by a narrator, well-played by the actress Maitxell Carrero, reading passages from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar. This gives the evening politically correct feminist credentials as well. Bits of it seemed very interesting so perhaps someone will be encouraged to republish the book. However, the message of the whole opera is that the Spanish were not very nice to the Mayan people. I think we have known this for some time, so I didn’t find anything too revelatory here. (Please note: Don Pedro de Alvarado, the Conquistador, really was horrible to his Indian Queen wife and did a lot of slaughtering and butchering whenever he got the chance.) The production was staged to look like something we would see on tonight’s news from the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Yes, I think I got all the show’s messages, despite its lethargy. On the other hand, I also came to feel Sam Goldwyn was right―if you want to send a message, use Western Union.
The second half of the show is somewhat more interesting than the first since there are actually some moments when Julia Bullock is finally given a chance to convey her character and suffering (although, alas, she actually gets to sing very little). She has the same capacity as Janet Baker to inhabit a role and make an audience believe in her, even with minimal exposure. Her acting is very fine and her singing is superb. She has a wonderful voice; she’s the central protagonist and, by the end, the star of the show, and her mime and silent reactions during the long, tiring periods when she has to be on stage and yet hasn’t a note to sing are always convincing. Her duet with Lucy Crowe (who plays a sensitive Spanish woman, the wife of the governor) is a total knockout. I would love to see both women paired in something like The Marriage of Figaro or Cosi fan Tutte, or Semiramide. or some Handel or just about anything where they are given true drama to convey through gorgeous and varied music and some wonderful duos; where they have a director who knows how to show off their talents and not drown them in a Concept; and a conductor who can actually get some drama and movement into the music.
Vince Yi, Thomas Walker, Noah Stuart and Anthony Roth Costanzo (another rising American star) were all very fine. The ENO certainly knows how to find strong and memorable singers. I also found myself thinking that if you excerpted any five minutes of this production on YouTube it would look gorgeous and even sound good; but that finally, if you sit through the whole evening, it simply doesn’t hang together or add up to anything very much. It was an exceptionally squirm-making three hours of largely forgettable Purcell.
The night that I attended about 20% of the audience didn’t come back for more after the interval. I have to say, Dear Readers, were it not for my commitment to bringing the news from Ghent to Aix for you, I probably would have given up, too. That would have been a shame, because the best of the material and the best chances for the performers to show their talents is mostly later on. There was even one springy, pacey number very near the end that proved that Laurence Cummings, can, in a pinch, ramp up the speed. But it was a long time coming.
The English National Opera has been in the news a lot lately for its collapsing budgets and Arts Council-cut subsidies. It’s a shame. The company actually is sincerely committed to innovation and to ensemble work and when it succeeds it is often brilliant, provocative and even revelatory―as with recent productions such as their Benvenuto Cellini (Terry Gilliam), Girl of the Golden West, Elixir of Love or Traviata. Even something as straightforward as their Mastersingers is admirable and serves the work itself well. ENO appeals to a theatrically curious but also democratic audience (their ticket prices are often a third of those at Covent Garden, where we have the big and brilliant international circus of singing and star power).
If the ENO is going down the drain, then this evening felt a bit as if it could be its funeral song, and reminded me of what happened to the New York City Opera, no longer with us. That said, I hope that the company stays alive. We need their approach; we need their cheaper ticket prices; we need their less élitist audiences and a place for younger people to discover opera as an art form. Sometimes, as in this production, their experiments can go wrong. But it’s a failure filled with integrity and some mighty fine singing and acting, despite everything Peter Sellars did to keep them under wraps. And any company that has a Pirates of Penzance coming up (to be directed by Mike Leigh―remember Topsy-Turvy!), and has taken on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson is definitely worthy of attention and support.
And you know, Peter Sellars does really try! I don’t question his sincerity. I just wish his approach to The Indian Queen had conveyed more of what I think Purcell’s intentions might have been, given the excellence of its current cast and designers. ENO tickets March 4 – 14, 2015