Finally, one of Britain’s finest ensembles tackles the final masterpiece of one of Britain’s finest composers. The results are, as you’d expect, spectacular. Henry Purcell left the semi-opera The Indian Queen unfinished at his death in 1695 and it fell to his brother Daniel to supply a happy ending of sorts in the form of The Masque of Hymen for the 1696 revival. Consequently, audiences would have heard less music at the work’s Theatre Royal premiere in 1695 than they would have in any of Purcell’s previous semi-operas such as The Fairy Queen, from which the present work borrows a dance (more recycling sees the inclusion of the overture from the ode Come Ye Sons of Art).
But what the music might lack in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. Purcell devoted every ounce of his skill and artistry to bring to life John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard’s convoluted play about the Mexican Queen Zempoalla’s war with the Montezuma-led Peruvians, and the airs, dances, duets, trios and choruses perfectly manifest those “Italian and French styles English’d” so typical of this English Orpheus.
The recording opens with an amusing pre-show entertainment, Purcell’s satirical three-voice catch To all lovers of music, performers and scrapers, lustily sung by tenors Mark Dobell, Jeremy Budd and Matthew Long. This trio also provides one of the recording’s highlights in the biting, sibilant What flatt’ring noise is this, at which my snakes all hiss; bass Eamonn Dougan’s highly dramatic interpretation of the celebrated recitative You twice ten hundred deities provides another. Soprano Julie Cooper likewise captivates in the famous I attempt from love’s sickness to fly, as does soprano Kirsty Hopkins in They tell us that your mighty powers.
It goes without saying that the choral singing is exemplary throughout, as is the orchestral playing, all under Harry Christophers’ unerringly stylish direction.