“Music of doubt, music of questions, music of search”. This is how Peter Sellars, the stage director for this production of The Indian Queen, sees the music of Purcell in general and this piece in particular. Sellars has reportedly wanted to present his take on this semi-opera for decades. Finally, the Teatro Real, Perm Opera and English National Opera have joined forces to make it a reality.

© Aleksey Gushchin
© Aleksey Gushchin

Purcell, however, did not live long enough to finish the score. Sellars’ proposal to make up for it involves including earlier instrumental music from the composer, as well as texts from La niña blanca y los pájaros sin pies (“The White Girl and the Feetless Birds”), a novel by Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguilar, the first woman to be admitted in the Spanish Language Academy in her home country. The result is a variable mixture of music, theatre, dance and visual art.

The stage design is one of its strengths. Colourful and visually effective, it delineates and suggests but does not dominate. Conceived by Xicano artist Gronk (a.k.a. Glugio Nicandro) and reminiscent of abstract expressionism, it provides a simple yet powerful background against which to tell this story of love and fear. It works well both with a stage filled with Mayans and Spaniards and with the solitude of a single character.

Speaking of characters, the range is broad and some are more memorable than others. Teculihuatzin, the Indian Queen, gets a superb treatment in the hands of Julia Bullock, a magnetic actress with a beautiful and versatile voice that she uses elegantly. She is, by and large, the best from the cast. Noah Stewart is Don Pedro de Alvarado, the Spaniard who falls in love with, marries and eventually forsakes Teculihuatzin. He too brings a mixture of sound acting and honest singing, and the result is a couple that bursts with chemistry, sensuality and sexuality.

Nadine Koutcher is worth mentioning as Doña Isabel, particularly because of the appropriateness of her delicate voice to this repertoire. Maritxell Carrero plays the other main feminine character, Leonor, the daughter of Teculihuatzin. Unlike the other two, she expresses herself through words rather than music. The texts are certainly emotionally charged, but she makes every single word sound full of torment that she ends up sounding monotonous instead of disturbing.

The choir follows the director’s lead professionally, and is the conduit for some of the most inspired music ever to be composed – “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live” or “Remember not, Lord, our offences” are but two instances. Better English coaching would have helped them and much of the cast.

Purcell was truly at his best when he composed this score, and some of its pages are painfully beautiful. It is such a shame that the pace goes completely astray. Teodor Currentzis, in charge of the musical direction, dictates such a slow tempo in some sections that he turns magnificence into tediousness. He downright abuses the composer’s trademark silences and makes them endless, empty and meaningless. It is simply inexplicable that he seems to be completely unaware of any of these basic shortcomings. He is not the only one at fault, though. Sellars, for all his good work, clearly loses all sense of proportion, and common sense, by stretching this piece, originally lasting just under an hour, to four. The more the merrier, he must have thought. But clearly the not insignificant proportion of the audience that left in the interval, probably daunted by the prospect of two more hours, disagreed with him. Most of the numbers involving dance – such as the lengthy opening describing the five Mayan creations – could have just been axed with remorselessness. What felt like endless repetitions in some arias could have also been scratched. Less is more, and would have been here.

***11