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Actors Ben Porter, Christopher Ettridge, Elisabeth Hopper, Julie Legrand, James McGregor  [Photo by Frédéric Iovino]
27 Apr 2020

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

A review by Roger Downey

Above: Actors Ben Porter, Christopher Ettridge, Elisabeth Hopper, Julie Legrand, James McGregor [Photo by Frédéric Iovino]


For me, the crowning discovery so far is the production of the Dryden-Purcell “semi-opera” The Indian Queen by Guy Cassiers and Emmanuelle Haïm. Lille is not the first company to try to find a playable version of the music-drama left incomplete at the death of its composer. Peter Sellars has had a whack at it at the ENO, with predictably arbitrary interventions.

In a way Lille’s show is even farther from tradition than Sellers’. But the result is to turn one of the British Baroque’s less successful innovations into an incantatory evocation of what opera seria at its greatest must have seemed like to its contemporaries: an invocation of the Baroque’s most potent dramatic trope: the conflicting ideals of love and honor.

The means employed at Lille are as familiarly “cutting-edge” as the drama is portentiously stylized: bare stage, spotlight and neon bars, proscenium-filling projections. The spoken text is cut by more than half, the the score pieced out with other Purcell music and supplemented by works of John Blow and other contemporaries. The usual dance episodes are replaced by lengthy dumb-shows.

But for the first time in my experience, a “semi-opera” achieved dramatic coherence and tragic force. Viewers, deprived of synopsis and program notes may at first find the story line difficult to follow and the pace glacial: persist. You will be abundantly rewarded.

In outline: Two empires are at war, Aztec and Inca. At curtain’s’ rise, the Aztecs are down, thanks to Peru’s condottiere Montezuma. When he asks the Inca for the hand of his daughter in reward for his victor, he is coldly rejected. Enraged, he offers his services to the enemy and prevails once more and is once more betrayed. The compulsory lieto fine is achieved through a dizzying series of reverses in which honor-cards trump each other until love and valor at last win over malice and betrayal.

On stage, the drama plays out on two planes: a bare stage upon which black-clad speaking actors and singers enact tableaux presenting the action in abstract outline, while projected behind and above them, the same figures play out scenes garbed like figures of epic myth. On yet more screens, projections of war’s devastation alternate with procenium-filling grisaille close-ups of images of nature fuse with the stately flow of the music in a dense, tense unity.

The actors are uniformly believable in their declamation of Dryden’s extravagant dialogue, the closest thing in Engllsh to the thundering heroic verse of Corneille. If one performer is to be singled out, it is Julie Legrand as the scheming, murderous, lascivious Aztec queen Zampoalla. With Ben Porter as her lover/co-conspiriteo /rival Traxalla, they make Mr and Mrs Macbeth seem an estimable couple.

The singers too are uniformly excellent. Among those stepping out of the chorus to portray accessory characters, Gareth Brynmor John raises genuine Hell as thes orcerer Ismeron, while Anna Dennis as Amexia, the deus ex machina resolving the action, suspends time with her rendition of “So when glitt’ring Queen of Night” from the composer’s Orpheus Brittanicus.

No one will deprecate Haïm’s presentation of the score, and the players and chorus of her Concert d’Astrée ensemble have never played more grandly and trenchantly. But many readers may (as many reviewers did) deprecate Cassiere’s physical production as distracting, inappropriate, or cliched.

For me it provides a deep insight into how other strange musico-dramatic beasts may be brought back to life. Not by unimaginative by-the-numbers presentation (like Glyndebourne’s lumbering, exhausting Fairy Queen) or zany, audience-baiting modernizing (Peter Sellars’ abominably presumptuous Royal Opera Indian Queen). Would-be producers need to recognize and revel in the fundamental doubleness and dichotomy of the form. In such works, the mixture is the message.

Roger Downey

[The Indian Queen, recorded for television on October 8 th, 2019 at l’Opera de Lille, France Nord. Available for free streaming at through October 11, 2020]

The actors: Christopher Ettridge (L’Inca); Elisabeth Hopper (Orazia); Gareth Brynmor John (Ismeron); Julie Legrand (Zampoalla); James McGregor (Montezuma); Ben Porter (Traxalla); Matthew Romain (Acacis); Anna Dennis (Amexia).

The singers: Zoe Brookshaw (soprano); Anna Dennis (soprano); Rowan Pierce (soprano); Carine Tinney (soprano); Ruairi Bowen (ténor); Hugo Hymas (ténor); Nick Pritchard (ténor); Gareth Brynmor John (baryton); Tristan Hambleton (baryton-basse).

Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm; stage director: Guy Cassieres; set and costumes: Tim Van Steenbergen; video: Frederik Jassogne; imagery: Narciso Contreras; lighting: Fabiana Piccioli; dramaturgy: Erwin Jans; chorusmaster: Benoît Hartoin.

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