Set, rather confusingly, in Mexico and Peru, the 1695 semi-opera The Indian Queen is as contorted in its plot as any real opera. Montezuma, a Mexican, is fighting for Peru, but he switches his allegiance to Mexico, and then back to Peru. Mexican queen Zempoalla loves Montezuma (whose mother she deprived of the throne), but Montezuma loves Orazia, the daughter of the Peruvian ruler, and so does Zempoalla's son, Acasis. You couldn't make any of this out in the presentation the Handel and Haydn Society, under artistic director Harry Christophers, gave January 27 at Sanders Theatre. But you didn't have to, since the excellence of the performance spoke for itself.
The Indian Queen started out life in 1664 as a play by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard; for the semi-opera, the authors trimmed their work by almost half and Henry Purcell wrote more than an hour of music. The actors themselves didn't sing, which is why the story is so hard to follow: the music comments on the narrative rather than furthering it.
The first half of the Handel and Haydn afternoon served as an introduction to the form. In the "Drunken Poet" scene from Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen, Jonathan Best staggered about hilariously while chic fairies Margot Rood and Erika Vogel pinched and poked him. In the "Frost Scene" from Purcell's King Arthur music, Best brushed snow off his coat and chattered while Sonja Tengblad, hand on hip, portrayed a cajoling Cupid and the chorus at one point actually sneezed. In the "Masque of Hymen," which Purcell's brother Daniel appended to The Indian Queen after Henry's death, Tengblad and Woodrow Bynum, as a couple soured on marriage, held their scores in front of their faces and kissed.
The Indian Queen itself was a more sedate affair. Christophers showed his usual knack for making the instrumental sections sound stately but not static; he dances when he conducts, and so does the music. The strings shone in the symphony that starts Act II; Bruce Hall's trumpet was clarion throughout. The fine group of soloists was led by Best's powerhouse bass-baritone and Rood's sensuous soprano; the chorus was fervent, and best of all in the "All dismal sounds" finale, which was anything but. What I missed was the inspired acting that had enlivened the first half of the program. (I also missed Act IV, which was omitted.) Perhaps someday Handel and Haydn could team up with a theater company to give us The Indian Queen as it was done in 1695.
MORE CLASSICAL! Read Lloyd Schwartz's review of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim at thePhoenix.com/classical.