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An intriguing rarity

Betty Oliphant Theatre
04/24/2008 -  and 25, 26 April
Henry Purcell: The Indian Queen
Meredith Hall, Teri Dunn, Cavell Wood (sopranos), Peter Mahon, Richard Whitall (counter-tenors), Daniel Auchincloss, James Tuttle (tenors), Andrew Mahon (baritone), Michael Uloth (bass), Arlene Mazerolle, Ivan Sherry (actors)
Instrumental and dance ensembles, Larry Beckwith (Conductor)
Derek Boyes (Director), Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière (Choreography, costumes), Caroline Guilbault (Set designs/projections/lighting), Sylvie Martel (Costumes)

The Toronto Masque Theatre is the only organization I am aware of that has, as its central purpose, the performance of masques, a theatrical entertainment that had its peak period in the 16th and 17th centuries. Now in its fourth year of operation, TMT is nearing the end of a Purcell cycle with The Indian Queen (King Arthur is to be produced next year).

The venue is the theatre of the National Ballet School. It is an unusual space in that, while it seats just 300 people, it has a full opera-house-size stage, a requirement for the proper development of ballet technique. (It was designed by Jack Diamond, architect of the Four Seasons Centre, the performing home of the Canadian Opera and National Ballet Companies.) Using this space, TMT has all the stage room it needs for the spectacle that was/is an integral part of the masque, while at the same time the intimate size of the auditorium means that the smallish forces at hand (ten intrumentalists and nine singers) are easily audible.

The accomplished ensemble of free-lance musicians is conducted by violinist Larry Beckwith, TMT’s founder and artistic director.

The Indian Queen is described as a semi-opera, Dido and Aeneas being Purcell’s only real opera. However, the work is much less operatic than the term semi-opera indicates. It is a play interspersed with musical numbers, some with singing, some with dancing. The principals in the play never sing. The musical interludes do not advance the plot in any major way, but are there to comment on themes raised in it; for example, there is an exchange between Fame and Envy when the latter seeks to cast aspersions on the heralded greatness of the title character.

The original play dates from the 1660s when heroic drama was at its height. The authors were Sir Robert Howard and John Dryden. It consisted of 1400 lines of rhyming couplets, reduced to about 750 lines when Purcell’s music was added some thirty years later. For TMT, dramaturge Maer Powell has abridged it further, resulting in a performance that lasts about 100 minutes (less than half the length of a full performance), but retains all of Purcell’s music. Projected titles keep us abreast of plot developments, while two actors (Arlene Mazerolle and Ivan Sherry) recite key passages.

The play’s plot is really quite a corker, recounting the tale of the power-hungry Indian Queen of the title (Zampoalla), who murders her brother, the king of the Aztecs, banishing his pregnant wife, Amexia. Zampoalla rules with the aid of her ruthless general, Traxcalla, and her reluctant son, Acacis. Twenty years later, an Inca leader enters her realm. He is in love with an Inca princess Orazia (as is Acacis). Her father forbids a marriage as he is not of royal blood. Zampoalla finds herself drawn to this mysterious young man. Further complications ensue, leading to a final scene which involves the rescue by his mother of both the young man and Inca princess from imminent human sacrifice, the suicide of Acacis, and the revelation that the Inca leader is actually Montezuma, son of the deposed Aztec leader. He then forgives his wicked aunt but she cannot face defeat and also commits suicide. This leads to marriage to Orazia, who becomes the new Indian Queen. It’s rather sad that Metastasio or the like never developed this rip-roaring tale for an opera seria composer. (Perhaps someone did and it sits somewhere awaiting rediscovery - or perhaps some enterprising librettist/composer team could get to work on it? PDQ Bach would surely name it Montezuma’s Revenge.)

The big problem with a “full” performance such as this is the lumpiness of the spoken text and its relentless rhyming couplets. Without it we would have a suite of wonderful musical numbers, the most famous of which is I attempt from love’s sickness to fly (oddly enough, the only piece of the evening that was not strongly performed). However we would then miss how well the music builds on the dramatic moments out of which it springs. A prime example is when the conjuror Ismeron (sung by Andrew Mahon) seeks to divine the meaning of the queen’s tortured dreams in Ye twice ten hundred deities. The peak musical moment occurs when Meredith Hall voices Orazia’s thoughts in They tell us you mighty powers above, an aria that gains immeasurably when performed this well and as part of the drama.

One wishes TMT had the budget to really fill the large stage with the kind of spectacle that we are told was integral to the masque. Still, Caroline Guilbault’s designs and projections establish an Aztec atmosphere. I would happily have seen more of the six-member troupe of dancers. Having the actors and singers wearing modern dress gives a semi-staged look to the performance.

Purcell composed this music in 1694, the last year of his life. It was first performed in 1695. The fact that his brother Daniel composed the final masque (heralding the joys of love) probably explains why it comes as a bit of an anti-climax after the blood and thunder events of the drama’s final act.

As a fitting curtain-riser to the evening, the troupe performs two vocal works by Purcell: If music be the food of love and Come, ye sons of art (Birthday Ode for Queen Mary), both also of 1694. These numbers give room for many of the singers to shine, notably Teri Dunn in the first piece, and the two counter-tenors in Sound the trumpet, the best known number from the birthday ode.

An organization devoted solely to performance of masques seems almost comically recondite, but TMT has actually commissioned at least one new masque and has acquired a coterie of supporters, not to mention government funding. I look forward to King Arthur and further such endeavours.

Michael Johnson



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