This is the last of Purcell’s operas, written in 1695, following a hardly understandable libretto, which tells the story of a war between the Aztec and the Maya peoples, where an Aztec princess falls in love with a Maya warrior. All this amidst a bunch of high priests, triumphal choruses, and the unavoidable human sacrifices. In that period of time, Europe was in love with the “Indians”, the native Americans who were being massacred while we were telling and singing our understanding of their customs and traditions, in wonderful baroque operas (see Les Indes Galantes).
The bad taste, which is already pretty bad in the original opera, gets considerably worse in the production of the director Peter Sellars, who, unsatisfied by a plot which is already so insane, changes and extends it. The Spanish Conquistadores take the place of the Maya; several musical numbers are added (all by Purcell, thank god), and a voice off stage tells parts of plot which have the only purpose of connecting the new musical numbers, among them, and to the original Indian Queen. The result is a bit the musical Mamma Mia, where a bizarre story has the only purpose of connecting the songs of ABBA. The icing on the cake is the voice going on and on about how the Aztec princess, who is supposed to spy on the Spanish commander, is completely smitten by his masculine warrior attitude and melts and falls for him and he is her God now. Gag me with a spoon. Luckily the performance was in concert form, so we were spared the dances, and a lot of the shenanigans that went with the staged version, but still, the singers were kind of “acting” in an annoying way, and the narrator voice off-stage was frankly embarrassing.
In all this completely-wrong-in-any-possible-dimension theatrical production, the musical production was GREAT. I mean great at an exciting, I-can’t-sleep level. But let’s proceed in orderly fashion.
The orchestra and chorus both came from the Perm Opera. Perm is a Russian city, almost in Siberia, not exactly a place on the musical map. The orchestra was musicAeterna, founded and conducted by Teodor Currentzis, who is, for lack of a better word, a genius. His commitment to the music and the performance is complete, and all-consuming. He cares about every single note, and “plays” it after carefully thinking and considering and shaping it. One of the most amazing things is how focused he is, his attention never drops, never, not for a second. The result is an enthralling performance, extremely moving and passionate; the whole thing was more than 3 hours without the pause, 3+ hours of baroque recitativi and arias and choruses, and it flew by in an instant. I didn’t feel tired, ever, I didn’t miss a beat, and I certainly wasn’t the only one: the whole audience was kind of kidnapped by this madman, who gave a wonderful interpretation.
Ok, let me also tell you about his faults. He’s a HUGE Prima Donna. He dances on stage, and acts, and jumps around like a ballerina, and plays the drum. He “plays” the singers, as if they were instruments. When a singer has a solo, he kind of leaves his place at the “podium” (there was no actual podium) and goes next to the singer, directing him/her, pulling the notes out with his hands, and mouthing the words in synch with them. My friend Aurelia found it distracting, I actually liked the idea that he is like a puppeteer, a “player of singers”. Another annoyance was how he was dressed: black jeans, combat boots, and a renaissance-like black shirt, with ruffles at the sleeves. But the single most annoying thing that he does is that he stomps. He stomps with the music (not always, but often enough to be annoying), and it’s loud, and it’s like having big drum which booms at random. And when he does it in the middle of a triumphant chorus, it’s not a big deal, but when he does it during a recitativo, that’s bad, it’s just bad. All this does not even begin to deter from his amazing musical taste, and his ability to communicate a happiness, an enjoyment of the music, which is very rare and precious.
The orchestra itself was extremely good, it’s his toy, and it’s very responsive to him. They dance together, and the players clearly understand and share his vision. It was a strange combination of baroque and “normal” instruments. The violins were (in my opinion) baroque, and the trumpets and oboe were certainly baroque. But in the cellos there was a mix: some normal, some baroque, some with traditional bows, some with baroque bows, and an arpeggione (the cello’s big grandpa, with 6 strings). Quite big, bigger than your average period instrument orchestra, and extremely good. A disappointing thing was that the continuo was amplified. I understand that the theorbo and the baroque harp can hardly be heard in a big concert hall, but I just think it’s bad taste.
And we come to the chorus, the winner of the evening! Together with the friends who were with me, we agreed that we have NEVER heard an ensemble as good as the Perm Opera Chorus, which gave an amazing performance. They had a feeling, an interpretation, and a sheer technical ability which resulted completely irresistible. Their impossible pianissimi were heart breaking, and, in general, the way they expressed the dynamics, the messa di voce, the crescendo and diminuendo, was absolutely masterful and extremely communicative. Their command of the ensemble was incredible: at a certain point, during a religious hymn, the lights went low, the conductor sat down on the floor, and they just kept singing, and breathing together, and doing all the dynamics and the changes in the tempo all by themselves. In the dark. It was really unbelievable. They got the only show-stopping applause of the whole evening, and it was absolutely deserved.
And now onto the singers!
Paula Murrihy was the Aztec princess, and she was definitely a lead, she sang more than the others, and is the only one who kind of had a character with some sort of psychology. She is great in baroque music, but her voice is very round, with a nice vibrato, and suited also to the Romantic repertoire (she also sings Carmen). I liked her a lot: she is very emotional and warm, very effective both in the Indian Queen parts and in the wonderful Purcell’s songs she got to sing.
The other woman was Johanna Winkel, a German soprano who is not really very active, in opera: she does a lot of concerts and recitals, but opera, not so much. Her voice soars high and is, at times, a bit “uncovered”. I feel she should cover her high notes more. But my friend Aurelia says that it sounded like a stylistic choice to her, and she may very well be right. She got the song O Solitude, which is one of those heart-breaking Purcell’s lamentations. She was great.
Then we had two countertenors, of which one was one of my favorites singers in the whole world: Christophe Dumaux! I adore the timbre of his voice. It is so warm, so round, so full, so non-countertenor-like. And his trumpet-like projection just turns his voice in this weirdly masculine, yet very high instrument. He has a great musical taste, and really understands how to sing this stuff. His Music for a while was a gem. I had to close my eyes because the director had him do strange movements, but he really sang it like a master, and I have heard it from Andreas Scholl…
The other countertenor was the very young Ray Chenez, who is a very high soprano. His voice is impossibly high, his ease in the high register is impressive. The quality of his voice is a bit more standard-countertenor-like, a bit metallic, but not strained at all. I think he could become very good, I would love to hear him again. He has one thing going against him though. He sang Cherubino. Any countertenor who sings Cherubino should be flogged on the public square.
Then we had 3 men singing like men: a tenor, a baritone and a bass, and they were all extremely good. The tenor Thomas Cooley is a Bach and baroque specialist; Jarrett Ott, baritone, is a young American singer, a rising star, and Willard White, bass, is a 70 years old Jamaican singer who was selected by Callas for her masterclasses at Julliard in 71/72. He’s still amazingly good!
It was an amazing musical evening, despite all the faults that I have described, we left the theater with a feeling of overwhelming joy, a feeling that music had won.