Henry Purcell – The Indian Queen
Julie Cooper, soprano; Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Jeremy Budd, tenor; Mark Dobell, tenor; Matthew Long, tenor; Ben Davies, bass; Eamonn Dougan, bass; Stuart Young, bass
Harry Christophers, conductor
Henry Purcell wrote few works for the theatre after he took the post of organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679 and his contributions were usually limited to short pieces and incidental music as that composed for Nathaniel Lee’s tragedy Theodosius (1680) and for Thomas d’Urfey’s comedy A Fool’s Preferment (1688). There are anyway significative exceptions to this praxis and Purcell wrote music for seven plays between 1680 and 1689, together with the chamber opera Dido and Aeneas, probably premiered in 1689, which is a milestone in the musical history of England.
The Indian Queen, performed for the first time in 1695 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (the exact date is unknown), is the fourth and last of Purcell’s semi-operas. It is the revised version of a play with the same name written by John Dryden and his brother-in-law Sir Robert Howard in 1664, but it was turned into a musical only thirty years later, for the interest of the impresario of the United Company, Thomas Betterton.
Purcell wrote only the music for the Prologue and Acts II and III of The Indian Queen before his death (November 1695) and it was his brother Daniel who completed the score of the unfinished opera with music for the masque celebrating the wedding of Orazia and Montezuma but, considering the lower quality of this piece in comparison with the rest of the work, this part is usually omitted. In the present recording, it is presented at the end.
The libretto is based on an implausible story, assuming the proximity and belligerent state of the Inca and Aztec empires, but Purcell’s music is beautiful and has the peculiarity to reverse «the normal 17th-century relationship between spoken text and music […], the text serving as a narrative framework on which to hang a succession of visually spectacular and musically elaborate scenes involving the use of complex movable scenery or stage machinery. Though such scenes were frequently integral to the dramatic situation, the principal characters did not usually sing» (quote from the New Grove Dictionary).
This recording features the fine performance of The Sixteen under the conduction of its founder Harry Christophers. Christophers’s merit is to have given prominence to the lightness of Purcell’s music, so that the semi-opera has overall the character of a triumphant progression, without any concern about the situations of the plot. The result is that The Indian Queen is entertaining in its character, but some deep connotations are clearly recognizable in many pieces, as in You twice ten hundred deities or in the melancholic Seek not to know what must not be reveal’d. This achievement has been possible thanks to some valuable soloists in possession of great musicality and taste and I will remember at least the beautiful duet between soprano Kirsty Hopkins and tenor Jeremy Budd, By ancient prophecies we have been told, together with You twice ten hundred deities, sung by the excellent bass Eamonn Dougan, and What flatt’ring noise is this, sung by Envy (again Dougan) and two followers (Budd and the other tenor, Mark Dobell), which is characterized by the accentuation of the many “s” of the text to imitate the hiss of the snakes.
The Indian Queen is a recording that reveals some wonderful music performed in an original and superb way and it is a recording that will not at all disappoint a lover of Baroque and Purcell’s music.