That’s not to suggest Sellars’ concept isn’t inspired: by using Rosario Aguilar’s 1992 narrative The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, he gives us a female perspective, both Spanish and Mayan, on the Conquista genocide. Their shared oppression surely finds its ideal expression in the piercing, spiritual melancholy of Purcell’s songs and church anthems. And there’s no sense in which disparate songs are shoe-horned into a narrative Mamma Mia-style: most of the original music retains its order and is aptly used, with famous airs and anthems serving to heighten and deepen emotion: ‘Remember not, O Lord, our offences’ following a massacre, is devastating; the luminous, soaring purity of Lucy Crowe’s ‘O Solitude’ is worth the price of the ticket alone.
In true Restoration style, Sellars assigns four dancers a key role in scene setting (their Mayan Creation dance, all elbows and heels, a bijoux Rite of Spring) and in embodying the supernatural. Christopher Williams’ snappily detailed choreography provides an enlivening focus and complements the crudely colourful paintings of Gronk, a Chicana muralist, who blends Mayan hieroglyphics with contemporary-style graffiti.
The problems begin with the sheer amount of speech. The twin tales of Doña Isabel, who comes to Terra Firma as wife of Governor Don Dávila, witnesses unspeakable brutality and attempts to rescue native women through Christian conversion, and that of Teculihuatzin (who is given to the murderous Don Pedro de Alvarado, and falls in love) is told by their troubled daughter, Leonor, played by Puerto Rican actress Maritxell Carrero. She has too much text and too little time to say it, and her breathlessly passionate delivery borders on the hysterical.
Structually, it’s lop-sided: by the end of the first half we’ve had the ecstatic sexual union of Techulihuatzin and Alvarado (charismatic tenor Noah Stewart), her betrayal of her people, his betrayal of her and a massacre. In the second half, it’s downhill all the way to Techulihuatzin’s grave (though one wouldn’t have missed the promising Bullock’s ardent rendition of ‘I attempt from love’s sickness’ for the world).
Then there’s the chorus. While Laurence Cummings draws exquisitely intimate continuo from his players, the chorus sounded both sludgy, unbalanced and querulous. Purcell’s complex, chromatic lines and spooky false relations require gleaming precision; this cried out for the blend, resonance and freshness of one of our great early music vocal ensembles, not a tired-sounding opera chorus who’ll be back on Meistersinger next week.
South African baritone Luthando Qave was a thrillingly potent Shaman, but ‘Mayan’ counter-tenors Vince Yi and Anthony Roth Costanzo bordered on the shrill and the waveringly fragile respectively.
There’s a spell-binding moment when tenor Thomas Walker (Governor Dávila) sings ‘If grief has any pow’r to kill’ sotto voce, without accompaniment. In those still measures, Sellars brings us not just to the heart of the matter, but to the soul of Purcell’s genius. Somewhere in this, there’s a well-shaped work struggling to get out.
The Indian Queen runs at ENO until 12 March