The Indian Queen

14, 16/05 – 20:30
15/05 – 15:00
1h 15min

Whether he is staging a play by Shakespeare or Euripides’ The Bacchantes, Jan Decorte always reduces theatre to its essence. For his first opera production in 2006, he created a Dido and Aeneas that was clear in its simplicity and uncluttered structure. This time, the uncrowned king of Flemish theatre turns once again to the English baroque composer, Purcell. The Indian Queen (1695) is a ‘semi-opera’, a hybrid genre of theatre and opera. In the original version of the work, spoken or danced passages alternated with sung scenes. Over time and various different interpretations, these tend to have been ignored. What remains, though, is an essentially sung libretto in which the adventures of the Indian queen – the Queen of Mexico at war with the Aztec hero Montezuma – are told in a fragmentary way. In his adaptation, in which the B’Rock ensemble also performs the role of the chorus, Decorte disregards the complex plot. His quest for basic simplicity is perfectly in keeping with the strength and freshness of this ‘not-yet-opera’. A must-see!

Henry Purcell

Jan Decorte

Musical direction
Frank Agsteribbe

Music performed by

Dance & play
Sigrid Vinks

Hanna Bayodi (soprano), Risto Joost (contratenor), Frederik Akselberg (tenor), Havard Stensvold (baritone)

Meret Lüthi (violon 1), Yukie Yamaguchi (violon 1), John Ma (violon 1), Jivka Kaltcheva (violon 2), Sara DeCorso (violon 2), Liesbeth Nijs (violon 2), Luc Gysbregts (viola), Manuela Bucher (viola), Rebecca Rosen (cello), Tom Devaere (violone), Katelijne Lanneau (flute), Bart Coen (flute), Jean-François Madeuf (trompet), Frank Agsteribbe (harpsichord), Wim Maeseele (lute)

Jan Decorte, Sigrid Vinks, Sofie D'Hoore

Set design
Jan Decorte, Johan Daenen

Jan Decorte, Luc Schaltin

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater

B’Rock (Ghent), Bloet vzw (Brussels)

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Kaaitheater (Brussels), Concertgebouw Brugge, deSingel (Antwerpen)

Supported by
Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie

Thanks to
Zinnema (Brussels)

Back to top

The Indian Queen

After their successful production of Dido & Aeneas in 2006, the theatre-maker Jan Decorte and baroque orchestra B’Rock are once again tackling a work by the English composer Henry Purcell. Jan Decorte is creating a contemporary musical-theatre production from the baroque semi-opera The Indian Queen (1695). It is set in Peru and Mexico just before the Spanish invasion. The ‘Indian’ queen in the story is actually Zempoalla, the ruler of Mexico. The libretto is made up of a tangle of intrigues at her court, wars and rivalries in love, in all of which the Aztec hero and military leader Montezuma plays a central role. The themes of war and peace, rivalry and affection are in fact at the core of the performance.

In addition to its content, the form of Purcell’s The Indian Queen also makes a good starting point for today’s musical-theatre landscape. In seventeenth-century England, attempts to stage fully sung operas never got off the ground, so in the case of The Indian Queen we can only call it a ‘semi-opera’: musical passages alternated with spoken and danced passages. The spoken passages have increasingly dwindled in performances of the piece over the centuries. This brought the music to the fore and the libretto then separated into fragments with no obviously explicable coherence. This has automatically forced Jan Decorte towards greater abstraction.

In his staging, Decorte consequently opts for images that enhance the musical experience. Compared with his 2006 production of Dido & Aeneas, this is a more ‘wilful’ adaptation. The orchestra, for instance, will also act as chorus, thereby providing both musical and vocal support to the four soloists. Decorte’s penchant for an almost primitive simplicity is here in perfect keeping with the still fresh immaturity of this early English not-yet-opera.

Musicological notes on the work by Diederik Verstraete

Unlike in most other European countries, in late 17th-century England attempts to stage fully sung operas did not meet with much success. So the bulk of Purcell’s dramatic music was intended for spoken plays, for which he supplied both orchestral passages (overtures and intermezzos) and songs. The sung scenes were at those points in the play where they were most expected: in drinking and seduction scenes, serenades and lullabies, to glorify battles or lament deaths, or simply to entertain the characters on stage and the audience too.

As well as a large number of shorter musical additions to various plays, it was mainly with his four ‘semi-operas’ that Purcell made his essential contribution to English music for the theatre: The Prophetess, or the History of Dioclesian (1690), King Arthur (1691), The Fairy Queen (1692) and The Indian Queen. The last of them dates from 1695, also the last year of Purcell’s life, and as a result of his extremely premature death on 21st November of that year it was never completed. He probably started on it in the winter of 1695, in close cooperation with Thomas Betterton, who, as a producer, director and actor, had played an important part in the first three semi-operas for the Theatre Royal. In spring 1695 Betterton was engaged in setting up a new theatre company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and after some time lost interest in this new work. We do not know who ultimately wrote the script, but the libretto is quite bombastic and highly anachronistic. Purcell was nevertheless able to provide this unlikely story with some exceptionally powerful music, though he left the fifth act incomplete when he died. His younger brother, Daniel Purcell, added a concluding masque so that the work was made ready for the stage after all, and the first performance was in spring 1696. Purcell’s own music includes some of his darkest and most sophisticated writing, and the cheerful masque in honour of a marriage, which Daniel added to the end, contrasts sharply with the rest. Even so, he managed to surpass himself and came up with a striking ending for his lamented brother’s swansong.

The character the title refers to is Zempoalla, ruler of Mexico. She was thwarted by the Incas of Peru and their military leader Montezuma, who after some time switched allegiance and with whom Zempoalla fell in love. The exotic setting of the New World is no more than a coat of varnish over a drama that might just as easily have been set in ancient Greece or Rome. It is only in the last scene Purcell set to music – in which the humiliated Zempoalla commits suicide – that the story really takes off. Purcell rightly decided, when setting this story to music, to focus on Zempoalla: the ‘Masque of Fame’ in the second act illuminates her complex personality by means of an allegory; and the famous scene in the conspirators’ cave (‘Ye twice ten hundred deities’) is an extended interpretation of a dream. These scenes contain some of Purcell’s most powerful dramatic music, which gives a direct outline of the situation. In addition, The Indian Queen contains some of Purcell’s most memorable songs: ‘I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’, a delightful rondo in which the words are perfectly set, and ‘They tell us that you mighty powers above’, a majestic melody that Purcell harmonised with great subtlety. The Indian Queen is one of Purcell’s strongest works and seems to herald a new direction in his thinking on composition: away from Italian influences and more towards the French ‘tragédie lyrique’, with the traditional English counterpoint adding extra spice. This is what makes it so unfortunate that Purcell was no longer granted the time to develop this new synthesis of European baroque styles any further.

Back to top

Jan Decorte (°1950) is a unique figure in the Belgian theatre world. In the late seventies he took his first steps as a theatre director with productions of Ibsen, Goethe and Chekhov, among others. In 1982 he became the artistic director of the company Het Trojaanse Paard, which in 1987 became Jan Decorte + Cie and subsequently Bloet, its current name that derives from the play Bloetwollefduivel (1994). Since the mid-eighties Decorte has mostly staged his own texts. Sigrid Vinks, Decorte’s partner, plays an important role in his work, both on and off stage. Over the last decade, Jan Decorte has achieved great success with pieces such as dieu & les esprits vivants (2005), which was warmly received at the Festival d’Avignon, Wintervögelchen (2008) and Bakchai (2010). In 2006 Jan Decorte directed his first opera: Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas.

B’Rock was founded in 2005 at the initiative of harpsichordist, composer and conductor Frank Agsteribbe and bass player Tom Devaere. B’Rock grew out of a desire for renewal and rejuvenation in the world of early music. The fixed core of the group consists of some twenty musicians from Belgium and abroad, specialized in historically informed performances. B’Rock stands out as a baroque orchestra through its performance-oriented and style-conscious presentation of early music, in which expression and intensity are central. The orchestra developed into a key player on Flemish and international stages. Opera, dance and adventurous music-theatre form an important part of their artistic work.

Back to top