“Sometimes a hero in an age appears: but scarce a Purcell in a thousand years” – the verdict of a contemporary musician on the death of Henry Purcell, arguably the greatest of all English composers, and lovers of his music are in for a rare treat at the English National Opera. The Indian Queen incorporates some of his most beautiful songs and anthems, very well performed by a fine young cast – many of them house debutants – and wonderfully played under Laurence Cummings’ direction. If you are not familiar with this composer, this is your chance to experience his music on the operatic stage: whether or not you will warm to the whole production depends on your ‘Peter Sellars appreciation level’ and on your …er …seat, given that it’s a long evening which at times felt longer than the Meistersinger of a couple of weeks ago.
Sellars is not to everyone’s taste – his Glyndebourne Zauberflöte in 1990 was critically panned partly due to its setting around an L.A. freeway (one hopes that it would fare rather better now, given that most critics seemed happy with a similar setting for the ROH Manon Lescaut) and his Theodora, also at Glyndebourne in 1996, remains one of the greatest operatic experiences of our time. This version of The Indian Queen will probably be loathed as much as it is loved, and if some of the action – principally the dancing and the spoken narrative – could have been significantly cut, I suspect that more would come down on the side of ‘loved.’
Sellars has adapted Purcell’s semi-opera, originally based on a play by John Dryden and Robert Howard, to include, as well as the songs and hymns, a narrative from the Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguilar’s novel The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, and the story told is of the troubled emergence of a new order seen from the perspective of the women who lived through it. Gronk’s vibrant, eye-catching set designs and Dunya Ramicova’s colourful and inventive costumes delight the eye, although the spoken narrative, by the actress Maritxell Carrero has its longeurs, and we could cheerfully have lived without some of the more extended dances, expertly choreographed (Christopher Williams) though these were.
The main reasons to see it are the singing and playing; the latter could hardly be bettered, given that Laurence Cummings has few equals in this music and he directs it as though it is flowing straight out of him – lightness, grace, elegance and, especially vital in Purcell, poignancy are all abundant. The cast features two notable ENO debuts, from the counter-tenor Vince Yi and the soprano Julia Bullock; both have ideal voices for Purcell and give committed, engrossing performances: Yi’s ‘Sweeter Than Roses’ and the soprano’s ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ were high points of the evening.
Lucy Crowe’s sweet timbre and noble bearing were perfect for her role, reminding us of Dawn Upshaw in Theodora, and Thomas Walker, Noah Stewart and Anthony Roth Costanzo all provided first-rate singing and highly involved acting. It was difficult not to keep thinking how good it would be to hear the two counter-tenors in ‘Sound the Trumpet’ and either of the sopranos in Dido’s music. Indeed, the relative brevity of the songs and anthems – performed by the chorus with just the right blend of reverence and lustiness – was frustrating; we wanted more Purcell, and perhaps this production will encourage the house to give us another of his works.