Salzburg Festival 2023 Review: The Indian Queen

By João Marcos Copertino
Photo credit: © SF/Marco Borrell

It might be unfair to name Purcell as the composer of “The Indian Queen.” The opera, left unfinished, has been restored from the composer’s fragments mostly through the efforts of Teodor Currentzis and Peter Sellars. They managed to give some theatrical shape to the arias and added music from elsewhere in Purcell’s corpus that made the opera three-and-a-half hours of enjoyment.

Although this production took place in Salzburg’s historical Felsenreitschule and was not fully staged, its semi-stagedness gave us what we needed. In fact, the succinct lighting and efficient stage directions made the night unlike some of Sellars’ work in the last twenty years or so. Imagine Sellars’ “Tristan” in Paris, but without Bill Viola’s installations.

The Political Debate of English Opera

The production represented a more than fair attempt to make the heated political debate of English opera relevant in the twenty-first century. In the program, Sellars recounts his experiences witnessing the Nicaraguan revolution, and Andrew Pinnock stresses how political Purcell was. Therefore, in today’s fashion, the opera tries to embrace an anti-colonial approach.

The spectacle was all very enjoyable, the music was great, and Sellars has wonderful political and visual sensibilities. If I dare be a bit of a prig, however, things fall short politically. While the show aimed for the revolution, the result was perhaps rather a more aesthetically refined version of Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans.” I think Sellars’ “The Indian Queen” shares the poetics of José de Alencar’s magnum opus, “Iracema.” There are the common tropes of a woman of color in love with a white man and their eventual poetical death. After all, it is Purcell, Howard, and Dryden, not Toni Morrison—and that’s more than okay.

The best element of the staging is its sharp approach to sexual desire. Although this is nothing new for Sellars, it is nice to see an opera staging that is aware of its power in creating tension and representing desire.

The narrator, Amira Casar, does a fair job most of the night. The multi-lingual thespian has a vast filmic career, though youngsters might know her best as Timothée Chalamet’s mother in “Call Me By Your Name.” Despite being unable to  pronounce any of the Spanish names properly, she reads the text well and avoids any hamming for most of the night. By the second part of the opera, however, I was a bit irritated every time she started to speak. I wasn’t irritated so much by her, but by the way the narration seemed inevitably to prevent the scenic action and by the annoyingly generic music “improvisations” accompanying her speech. This music, far from sounding like anything by Purcell, sounded like the soundtrack of a Hollywood filmset anywhere from 16th century Andalusia to contemporary Afghanistan.

Stellar Cast of Singers

Quite likely the strongest scenic presence on stage was Teodor Currentzis’ conducting. While fussing every single note, Currentzis elicits extremely well-marked phrases with his Utopia Orchestra. He kept moving into the “scenic space” of the concert so he could give the singers their entries like a mother bending over to to help her toddler pick up a playground toy. The most impressive thing is the immense range of dynamics the Utopia Orchestra performed without ever playing above a mezzo forte all night. It was an immense achievement.

Jeanine De Bique is clearly in her element when singing baroque music, especially Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa. One of the most beautiful voices today, her instrument is not super loud. It loses a bit of its gorgeousness when singing forte. Utopia orchestra, and Currentzis, seem able to respect De Bique’s talent. Although, I would have appreciated a bit more emphasis on the English consonants. Her rendition of “They tell us” is undeniably one the best versions I have ever heard. But, I dare say her “I love and I must” was the best moment of the night. She sang it without any exaggeration in the coloratura articulations. There are very few singers, nowadays, that have so colorful sustained notes. Moreover, she is a strong actress with fine and moving gestures.

The very technically accomplished Rachel Redmond’s Doña Isabel suffers from a lack of dramatic gravitas in her part on the semi-stage. Her “O Solitude” (Z 406) was fair and kind, and her approach to the Fairy Queen’s “See, even Night herself is here” was very competent.

Jarrett Ott was mostly quiet throughout the night. After all, it is an incomplete opera, so his part was musically shortened. His performance of Don Pedro de Alvarado benefits a lot from his dramatic skills and looks. Ott is a fine example of what in the golden age of the blogsphere used to be called a “barihunk.” Although I do not know if the term is still a propos, Ott himself is unashamed to incorporate his looks in the making of his character. In his semi-anti-colonial approach to this semi-opera, Ott manages to represent a certain kind of colonialism, brutality, and whiteness that is not, by any means, devoid of its charms. One might see why Teculihuatzin would love him. When Ott does sing, however, he proves to be a baryton with a fine sense of phrasing and a talent for expressing melancholy. His voice, though not huge, is extremely versatile. He clearly can get by in a wide range of repertoire, especially contemporary music.

Julian Prégadien, singing the brutal Don Pedrarias Dávila, has an impressive vocal and scenic presence. In desperate need of better-tailored costumes, Prégadien fils can be quite scary when he wants to be. His eyes become as evil as they get, especially when he contemplates his bloody colonial conquest. In his duo with Ott, “O how happy we are,” one can feel the wickedness in his vocal coloratura in a form that I would have thought impossible for a tenor to convey, until now.

Dennis Orellana sings Hunahpú with such talent that the audience was left in complete amazement. His voice has a piercing soprano tone with good projection and an immense elasticity for ornamented phrasing. Andrey Nemzer, as Ixbalanqué, also enchants when singing his “Seek not to know.”

Nicholas Newton was very crafty with every English word’s sound. His “this” has the most prolonged “s’s.” Even more than a mere sonic affectation, Newton actually understands the importance of a certain linguistic estrangement which he achieved through his over pronunciation. 

Nevertheless, the best English of the night was sung by the Utopia Chorus. They are a group of immense talent and impressive musical qualities. The Utopia Orchestra is not far behind them, with one of the clearest sounds I have ever heard. Its solo musicians play with much enthusiasm, and the bass lines are always well punctuated, giving to all the music a sense of movement that permeates the mind of the “semi-operagoers” until the end. 


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