Known for his eccentric and often visually glorious productions, American director Peter Sellars has created his own version of Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen, transforming what was an unfinished, short opera into a variation of Purcell’s songs, dance and narration. Collaborating with the artist Gronk, The Indian Queen is visually passionate and stylish and remarkably beautiful at times, though the piece itself seems too fragmented and confused as to what it wants to be.
The Indian Queen is based on both a play by John Dryden and a sequence of songs and masques for a revival of this in 1695, with its narrative taken from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguilar. It depicts the conquistador cruelty in the New World from the perspective of the women trapped in the middle of the bloodbath. Teculihuatzin (soprano Julia Bullock) is the daughter of an Indian chieftain and is given as war booty to the Spanish Don Pedro de Alvarado. Spying for her people, she soon falls in love with this foreign god, but as time passes their racial differences destroy her and the relationship, leaving their mixed race daughter trapped in the middle of a cultural battle.
It’s the story of three women: the Spanish Doña Isabel (Lucy Crowe), unhappy wife of the Viceroy, Indian princess Teculihuatzin and her mixed-raced daughter (actress Maritxell Carrero), who struggles with identity and the destructive gap between the two cultures. The women’s central part is riveting and an exciting perspective on colonisation; the narrative text delivered by the charismatic and sensual Carrero is haunting and, like a chant, grips us tightly with the thrilling sound of the rainforest behind her. Bullock’s performance is captivating, not just for her vocals: her sense of character and physical expression is one of sensual communication. Physically contrasted by the stiff, but fine and mesmeric vocal performance by Crowe, the three women enchant us throughout. Accompanied by four dancers, the physical life of the Mayans transports us to a natural and mysterious environment, and with Gronk’s incredible set design consisting of modern interpretations of Mayan art, the visual life of The Indian Queen is for the most part imaginative and stunning. The chorus costumes seem more like a thrift shop explosion than a captivating culture of mysterious gods and Earth, but that and their clichéd movement sequences are forgiven on hearing their striking vocals.
As a piece, Sellars’ production has its stunning moments – mostly in its visual life, but the orchestra has to be applauded for the music’s charming fluency and innocence. However, for me, Purcell’s sound jars with the Indian culture and the passionate backdrop of Gronk’s design. There is never passion in it, it’s never ugly and it resonates with historical Britain too much for it truly to transport us to the New World. It rather suggests the Spanish being in a foreign territory, as though the sound represents a white power forcing itself on a more warm-blooded culture. If intended, it is an intelligent choice, though it perhaps feels too alienated in the Indian world. As a narrative it feels too fragmented; the transition between dance, text and song seems abrupt, as if it is trying to morph three very contrasting worlds together. Each part is beautifully executed – though a bit too long – but I wish they would flow into each other with more ease. That said, the visual and aural worlds of The Indian Queen are worth experiencing, even if they don’t fully embrace each other.
The Indian Queen is performed by the ENO at the London Coliseum until 14 March. For tickets and more information, visit the ENO website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.