The Indian Queen

Henry Purcell, completed by Peter Sellars
English National Opera
The Coliseum

The Indian Queen Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
The Indian Queen Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
The Indian Queen Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

In a recent published Telegraph article, director Peter Sellars explained, "I’ve created a new runway which allows take off into Puccini’s music".

It’s certainly a new take on The Indian Queen; Sellars has removed the original spoken script and instead included a narration taken from the writings of modern novelist Rosario Aguitar.

Aguitar’s tale presents the Spanish invasion into South America from the women's perspective, a generation later than the opera’s original setting. Sellars maintains the order of the original score but interpolates extra orchestral and vocal numbers drawn from the great wealth of music Purcell left behind. There are also amplified natural sounds. These flesh out the night from 45 minutes to around 3 hours.

Sellars makes us witness the extreme unfairness of the Spanish troops against the native Indians and hear the story of the Spaniards crushing the native armies and forcing conversion to Christianity. Sellars exaggerates this imbalance—the Spanish are clad in modern-day khaki and wield machine guns whilst the Mayans wear Aztec inspired garb.

As well as spoken narration, the performance includes extended sections of ballet, opening with a twenty minute dance piece titled "Part 1", before even reaching the prologue. The four dancers are a joy to watch (Sonya Cullingford, Alistair Goldsmith, Lucy Starkey, Jack Thomson). Stylish choreography combines strong geometric shapes and baroque dance with great results.

Completely remodelled this is very much Peter Sellars’s take on The Indian Queen. After all the troubles ENO have had widely reported in the press this week, I want to love this bold new production. Sadly I can’t bring myself to.

There are beautiful moments of music making from the soloists—Vince Yi, Lucy Crowe, Julia Bullock and Noah Stewart shine with their stylish singing. This is a real showcase for the ENO chorus but I find their singing wanting. The choral music isn’t held that well together with the orchestra and lacks the finesse and vocal balance that the soloists achieve so gracefully.

Narrator Maritxell Carrero has a stylised delivery method which becomes quite tiresome as it lacks variation in the delivery of the text. Each word is spoken as if it is climatically important, but her story loses its impact amongst the constant gasping declamation.

My greatest complaint is a feeling of a lack of conviction to the performance. This parable of colonialism has a lot to say but instead at times the staging feels like a big joke that I’m not sure I’m in on. In "Part 1", the dancers take a break from their demanding, highly stylised routine to exchange high fives and a cheeky bum slap. This tongue-in-cheek start to the show makes me question whether the later clichés in staging are deliberately poking fun or unintentionally cringe-inducing.

Overall, The Indian Queen provides a fragmented evening—the storyline Sellars has chosen certainly works with the music selected, but it’s less a Purcell opera and more a story accompanied by wonderful Purcell music. It so nearly manages this idea of "total theatre"; all of the elements are there: dance, singing, narration, huge sets. It falls down with the variation in standard.

Some seem happy to ride along on a Purcell high without looking too closely at the many areas I’m nitpicking. Personally, these problems overshadow my desire to love the concept.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis

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