Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Indian Queen/Giove in Argo/La Serva Padrona

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Indian Queen/Giove in Argo/La Serva Padrona

Article excerpt

Review of Henry Purcells The Indian Queen, directed by Peter Sellars, conducted by Laurence Cummings, English National Opera, London, February and March 2015; George Frideric Handels Giove in Argo, directed by James Bonas, conducted by Laurence Cummings, London Handel Festival, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, March 2015; Giovanni Battista PergolesTs La Serva Padrona, directed by Johanna Byrne, conducted by Clare Clements, Insieme, Wiltons Music Hall, London, February 2015.

London opera-goers have been fortunate this spring to have the opportunity to view rare seventeenth- and eighteenth-century operas representative of very different operatic genres, two of which have not been performed since their first stagings until very recently due to the incomplete state of the source materials.

A tour backstage and a view from the technical gallery of the Coliseum before the performance of Henry Purcells The Indian Queen (first performed 1695) gave a preview of the backdrops which were such a significant feature of this production. They were by the Los Angeles artist Gronk, "the Banksy of LA." The technical manager called this a "flying show" because these specially commissioned backdrops dominated the performance, and there were few props. The technical manager explained that a season of opera which included Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger gave no space in the theatre for storing sets for the other two productions-The Indian Queen and La Traviata-which therefore had to rely on backdrops, curtains, and minimal sets. But there was nothing small-scale or minimalist otherwise about the production which expanded a forty-five-minute original work into a three-and-a-half-hour spectacular. Purcell scholar Andrew Pinnock argued in the program notes that while early music audiences would find an "archeological reconstruction" satisfying, something different was required in a large modern opera house. Californian director Peter Sellars is known to be eclectic in his use of theatrical and artistic influences. Sellars associates this semi-opera ("dramatic opera" as Purcell named it) with the work of Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau in the 1920s, that is as a "multi-disciplinary work" which combines music, dance, and the visual arts. An exotic location and the use of magic were ingredients of opera in the seventeenth century. In such operas, both singers and actors performed and consequently Purcell had to write music for all of them.

Purcell's The Indian Queen is loosely based on the play of that name by John Dryden and Robert Howard (first performed in 1664) which deals with the conflicts between the Inca and Aztec Empires before the invasion of the Conquistadors. There is speculation as to the date of the first performance of the semi-opera, but it is now thought to have been in June 1695. Following Purcell's death in November 1695, the work was completed with a masque by his brother Daniel. The first performance was jeopardized by the actors' rebellion, led by Thomas Betterton, against the patentees of the Theatre Royal and their establishment of a new theatre company at Lincoln's Inn Fields. New actors were recruited and the script seriously cut.

Where Purcell's opera, following Dryden and Howard, treats of wars between Mexicans and Peruvians, Sellars' production uses a modern work by the Nicaraguan writer Rosario Aguilar: The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma (1997). This work looks at the Spanish conquest of Mexico through the experiences of three women at the time, Dona Isabel (Lucy Crowe), wife of the Spanish Viceroy; the Mayan princess Teculihatzin (Julia Bullock) forced into a sexual alliance with a brutal conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado; and their daughter, Leonor (Maritxell Carrero).

Maritxell Carrero, an actor, was employed as narrator to read from Aguilar's work, words which introduced each scene. In the manner of eighteenth-century pasticcio operas, Sellars added sacred and secular choral and instrumental works of Purcell's, arguing for the sacred that church music was being reintroduced with the restoration of the monarchy in a "heartfelt way," just as was theatre and secular music. …

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