Generally, when you’re enjoined not to judge a cake by its ingredients, what is meant is that a collection of unappetising raw materials can be turned into a delicious treat. Sadly, Peter Sellars and English National Opera’s recreation of Purcell’s unfinished semi-opera The Indian Queen achieves the opposite effect.

Maritxell Carrero © Richard Hubert Smith | ENO
Maritxell Carrero
© Richard Hubert Smith | ENO

At his death, Purcell had completed about an hour of music for The Indian Queen to create an operatic version of a Dryden play set in a war between Incas and Aztecs. Considering this to be far too little for a full evening’s opera, Sellars has raided the Purcell store cupboard for a string of his greatest hits (Music for a while, O Solitude, Hear my prayer and many more) and added spoken text and dance, with the result running for three hours and forty minutes.

Some of the ingredients are of very high quality, most notably the vocal ones. There are four very fine high voices, two sopranos and two countertenors. Lucy Crowe and Vince Yi both sound exceptionally pure at the top end of their registers, with Crowe notable for dynamics and vibrato and Yi notable for sheer beauty of timbre. Julia Bullock and Anthony Roth Costanzo have sweet spots slightly lower in the register but sound equally clean, making a nice contrast. The ENO Chorus sings Purcell’s hymns and choruses with strength and beauty, and Lawrence Cummings flows the music nicely for pace and dynamics, although the Coliseum’s acoustics don’t do him any favours: I was often able to see instruments being played but unable to hear their sound through a wash of harpsichord and strings. Sets were mainly composed of brightly coloured panels: modern art with an Aztec flavour: limited, but attractive as far as they went.

But Christopher Williams’ choreography did nothing for me: a set of four dancers performing various movements while the surtitles indicated various Maya-related things like “Elevation of the World Tree” or “Divine Mirror of the Lovers”. I’m not at all sure how the early Mayans found their way into this particular opera, and the choreography didn’t enlighten me.

Julia Bullock (Dona Luisa) and Noah Stewart (Don Pedro de Alvado) © Richard Hubert Smith | ENO
Julia Bullock (Dona Luisa) and Noah Stewart (Don Pedro de Alvado)
© Richard Hubert Smith | ENO

Sellars abandons The Indian Queen’s original characters and story, replacing it with text declaimed by actress Maritxell Carrero from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, a novel by Rosario Aguilar which “recaptures the woman's view of the conquest and colonisation of Central America through the lives of six women who participated in the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians”. I can’t speak for how the texts would read in their original context, but in the opera house last night, they were toe-curlingly embarrassing, reducing the conquest of a once proud civilization to a melodramatic romance filled with heaving passion and thrusting loins. If I’m to believe what I saw last night, the only reason the Spanish conquest succeeded is that the Mayan princesses sent to spy on them were so smitten by their virility that they turned double agents. Purcell’s songs and choruses were scattered through all this with only the most tenuous of links.

The acting direction and chorus choreography didn’t improve things, done in a naive style that did nothing to bring me in harmony with any of the emotions being portrayed. I’ll just mention the most laughable of many moments that irritated me: the depiction of the great massacre in a style where the Spaniards raise assault rifles and everyone falls down, to get up again when the rifles are lowered, all to the accompaniment of Hear my prayer, O Lord, one of the loveliest of Christian anthems.

Julia Bullock (Dona Luisa) and Vince Yi (Hunahpú) © Richard Hubert Smith | ENO
Julia Bullock (Dona Luisa) and Vince Yi (Hunahpú)
© Richard Hubert Smith | ENO

I dearly love Purcell’s music, and I should have been perfectly happy with an evening of it being sung as well as it was by some wonderful voices. But Sellars’ choice of framing story and staging thoroughly spoilt any enjoyment I might have had: I came to dread every switch to the Mills and Boon-like text or an incomprehensible choreography of supposedly Mayan mysticism. Small things began to irritate further, like the skateboarders' knee pads worn over military fatigues by the Spanish officers, or the occasional addition of jungle sounds on a noisy sound effects loudspeaker located behind me. On leaving the house, my main thought was of how patronising and denigrating this production is to an ancient civilisation which deserves better treatment.