Antony Gormley, Matter, 1987, black pigment, linseed oil and earth on paper, 38 × 28 cm, © the artist
About the Production

‘Why should men quarrel here, where all possess as much as they can hope for by success?’

‘Semi-opera’ was the name given in later 17th-century England to a spoken drama with substantial musical sequences — these could be purely instrumental, sung or danced. The music composed for several such works by Henry Purcell in the final years of his short life shows him at the height of his powers as a stage composer. The semi-opera The Indian Queen was based on a play by John Dryden and Robert Howard that was popular at the time — a bizarre ‘heroic drama’ set against the background of fictitious conflicts between the Aztecs and the Incas, with larger than life-sized protagonists and a ludicrously improbable plot devised for the audience’s moral and intellectual edification. While Dryden’s dramatic world could hardly be more alien to us today, Purcell’s music has lost none of its power to move us deeply.
Director Peter Sellars has therefore created a version that places the vocal and instrumental numbers of The Indian Queen in a new dramatic setting: using passages from Rosario Aguilar’s novel La niña blanca y los pájaros sin pies (The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma), he tells the story of the Spanish conquest of Central America from the perspective of three women. Here the ‘Indian queen’ is the daughter of a Maya chieftain who is given as a concubine to a conquistador in order to spy for her people. She falls in love with him and gives birth to a daughter, but is eventually forced to realize that her hopes that love would make him turn away from the frenzy of conquest and destruction are in vain. The tragedy embraces a huge emotional range: Sellars and Currentzis have expanded the 50-minute original score of The Indian Queen not only with expressive solo songs and arias by the composer but also with a selection of Purcell’s religious choral pieces — deeply intimate, achingly beautiful music.

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