Fourteen years ago, Long Beach Opera started something with a wild, unpredictable, sassy, shockingly sexual, groundbreakingly postmodern look at Baroque opera. It was Christopher Alden's production of Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," one of the greatest operas ever written, which until then had been presented in its original version in the United States and never anywhere quite like that.
Now period-practice "Poppeas" and postmodern Baroque are mainstream. Over the weekend, for instance, the San Francisco Opera offered its version of the Alden production, albeit to some protest (the San Francisco Chronicle called it "disgraceful"). Meanwhile avant-garde Long Beach Opera has moved on. Sunday afternoon, in the Carpenter Center of Cal State Long Beach, the company uncovered yet another major but obscure Baroque opera with a great score, and gave it a new production, upping the outrage ante spectacularly.
There is something in "The Indian Queen" to offend just about everyone. There is also something in it that should delight or at least astonish just about everyone as well. It's a mess. But it's a dazzling mess. It utterly, totally, unapologetically undoes just about everything its authors, composer Henry Purcell and poet John Dryden, set out to do in 1695. But it saves a work that probably could survive in no other reasonable way. It brings something new to opera at a time when you might think just about everything imaginable has already been done. Expect the Salzburg Festival or Brooklyn Academy of Music to come calling if they dare.
First, before describing exactly what performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pen~a and director David Schweizer (along with a host of eager collaborators) have unleashed, a little background. Dryden's Restoration play--to which Purcell contributed about an hour's worth of music, much of it mythic interludes--is of little use to modern audiences. In this goofy history, Peruvian Incas and Mexican Aztecs make war. Montezuma is an Inca warrior until he is discovered to be the lost son of the Mexican queen, Zempoalla, whose story this is, sort of. It also used Purcell's last score, some of his most sublime music, however irrelevant to the drama.
Already absurd, it becomes even more so in Long Beach. An in-your-face performance artist with a strong agenda to interpret history from a politicized Chicano perspective, Gomez-Pen~a has no choice but to understand Dryden's drama as Eurocentrist racism. So with the help of Elaine Katzenberger, he has rewritten Dryden in modern language, with a few original lines surviving as parody. He has placed the whole affair as a threatening political revolt played in front of a couple of dopey American tourists.
The set is a large pyramid, highlighted in neon. On one side is the restaurant where the tourists sit. On the other is a movie screen that shows video collage by Gustavo Vazquez of old movies. First on stage is a dancer, shaved head, all blue, very eerie. The singers walk on, talking, in tacky formal wear, with the conductor, who is in leather. The tourists appear. Two ghostly nudes with brooms sweep.
For the chorus it's long jackets, bare legs and masks. Campy dominatrix Queen Zempoalla (Sharon Barr) first parades topless with fabulously convoluted headdress (Salvatore Salamone designed the imaginative costumes), then she ascends the steps of the pyramid and skips rope.
El Moctezuma Jr. (Javier Grajeda) is a boxer who appears in a boxing ring. The Inca king (William Marquez) is a drug lord in a wheelchair. Acaso (Erik Szamanda) is the Queen's son and an Inca prisoner, a stoned Generation X dude. The Queen has an army of rappers (led by the fluid Joe Hernandez Kolski).
And we are barely into the first of five acts. Cultures clash. The main political outline of celebrating Chicano culture and skewering the racist West is not followed closely. Everything gets mixed up in parody and glorious parades. In fact the real politics here is in pure storming of the opera stage, of putting as much on it as possible and doing it, ultimately, with a great sense of joy.
There are cliches. Sex scenes to Baroque arias are old hat, and the one to the beautiful one in Act 4, "They tell us that your mighty powers above," doesn't work very well. The production also seems to unravel at the end, as if either the producers ran out of ideas or time. But it is not entirely their fault, Purcell died before writing the last number.
The musical performance has some highlights. Three singers assume all the musical roles. Best is Ellen Hargis, a pure-voiced and beguiling soprano. Tenor Jonathan Mack had some rough patches at first but settled down later (the role was transposed down from countertenor); John Atkins was the reliable baritone. Andreas Mitisek, visiting from Vienna where he is best known for modern opera, conducted, from the harpsichord, a sparkling performance by the period-instrument Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra.
* "The Indian Queen" repeats Saturday, 8 p.m., Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. $30-$70. (562) 985-7000.