Montezuma – Tragedia per Musica in three acts to a libretto by Frederick II King of Prussia [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Montezuma – Flavio Oliver
Eupaforice – Lourdes Ambriz
Tezeuco – Rogelio Marín
Pilpatoé – Lucia Salas
Erisenna – Lina López
Cortes – Adrián-George Popescu
Narvès – Christophe Carré

Coro de Ciertos Habitantes

Concerto Elyma
Gabriel Garrido

Claudio Valdés Kuri – Director
Herman Sorgeloos – Sets
Jimena Fernández – Costumes
Carsten Sander – Lighting
Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-59) Claudio Valdés Kuri's embarrassing production of Carl Heinrich Graun's “Montezuma”, first seen in Essen earlier this year and now at the Edinburgh International Festival as part of a world tour, opens with sellers of Mexican tourist tat accosting the audience as they enter the auditorium, and closes with the cast contentedly sitting at the feet of conductor Gabriel Garrido, singing a chorus that is not by Graun at all, but by Manuel de Samoya (or Zamoya), the principal representative of Mexican Baroque. In between comes a kind of blurred, surreal analysis of Mexico's debasement, first at the hands of its Spanish conquerors, then as a consequence of post-colonial American and European influences. It involves, amongst other things, a singing dog, male rape and some very dubious goings on with a lot of bottles of Coca-Cola.
You might well be forgiven for wondering what this has to do with Graun's opera, a flawed if important work first performed in Berlin in 1755. Graun (1704-1759) was Kapellmeister at the court of Frederick II of Prussia, better known to us as 'Frederick the Great’, who wrote the libretto and is also known to have influenced its composition by insisting that Graun should get shot of traditional da capo arias, with their wholesale sectional repetition, and replace them with self-referential but through-composed cavatinas.
Frederick was anxious that his court and capital should embody the best of radical Enlightenment culture, and “Montezuma”, taking the Spanish conquest of Mexico as its subject, was intended as an attack on colonialist expansion in the name of religious fundamentalism. Historical fact is, however, twisted and re-written to fit the thesis. Pre-Hispanic Mexican culture – Frederick does not use the word “Aztec” – takes on qualities at once pre-lapsarian and humanist. Montezuma's empire – which in reality was expansionist, tributary and given to cults of sacrificing captured enemies – is re-defined as a tolerant second Eden that is despoiled by Christianity at its most aggressive and engulfing. After the fashion of classical drama, meanwhile, a private microcosm mirrors the political catastrophe. The operatic Cortes isn't only after Montezuma's country, gold and conversion to Christianity. He also has the hots for his fiancée Eupaforice, and as empires collide and massacres begin, we are also faced with a Tosca-like triangle, in which Cortes uses threats first against Montezuma's body then his life as a means of sexual blackmail.
Graun, sometimes dismissed as second-rate, actually realises his subject with considerable skill. Though he's no Handel, he's an attractive melodist and has a fine ear for orchestral sonority (predictably there are lots of flutes, Frederick's favourite instrument). One supposed flaw in his methodology – a habit of sticking too long round the tonic key at the start of an aria or movement – is less perplexing here than elsewhere, given that the work's dramaturgy is often dependent on clashes of inflexible will. It was written for high voices – sopranos, both castrato and female, and a single tenor – but there are striking contrasts between Montezuma's infinitely noble cantilenas, Eupaforice's assertive coloratura and Cortes's narrow-ranged but formidably powerful declamation.
The problem with Kuri's approach is that he doesn't trust his material. It is his idea, not Graun's or Frederick's, that the opera should be read as a metaphor for the decline of Mexican culture, and his approach may broadly be described as symbolist, albeit at times obscure. The first two acts are played roughly in period and observe the conventional boundaries between pit and stage. After the interval, however, the cast is in modern dress, and the players, who have abandoned black tie for jeans, have now joined the singers on the stage.
Flavio Oliver Messy parallels, mostly psychosexual and often ludicrous, are drawn between the production's two parts. When Cortes (Adrián-George Popescu) first catches sight of Montezuma (Flavio Oliver) in his loin cloth, he whips off his own shirt and belt and indulges in a bit of self-flagellation, before raping him and then having consensual sex with one of the women in his entourage. An attempt at a complex metaphor about conquest as a mixture of violent domination and collaborative control, the scene is echoed, after the interval, by another go at theatrical nastiness in which Cortes and his odious sidekick Narvès (Christophe Carré), now got up as capitalists in Miami Vice-style suits, assault the rest of the cast, sexually or otherwise, with Coke bottles. Neither scene succeeded in horrifying the audience, who gasped approvingly when Popescu got his clothes off and tittered a lot thereafter.
Another of Kuri's concepts, this time perhaps more relevant, is the idea of appropriation by cultural stereotyping. As part of the process of humiliation, Cortes forces the captive Montezuma to wear a huge hat and a poncho, so that he looks like a Mexican baddie from a Hollywood western. The idea also explains – I think, though I could not swear to it – Kuri's treatment of the ending. After Cortes has ordered the slaughter of Montezuma's followers, the cast begin squabbling proprietorially over a huge Mexican flag and the music first dissolves into chaos then breaks down completely. Order is only restored after song sheets have been handed out and Samoya's peaceful chorus begins, replacing Graun's altogether more violent close. Kuri's point, I think, is that Graun's opera is itself an act of appropriation that rewrites Mexican history for European ends – it contains the germ of the Rousseau-ist idea of 'the noble savage' – and that it too ultimately has to give way to a genuinely Mexican musical voice and means of expression.
What we have here, ultimately though, is not Graun's “Montezuma”, but a directorial version that is not only theatrically intransigent, but also manages to affect both the music and our responses to it. It goes without saying that the score is extensively cut, roughly by a third, with the first act most detrimentally affected. The performances are at times inadequate, the result, one suspects, of casting for theatrical rather than vocal effect. Popescu and Oliver both look terrific with their kit off, but neither is quite up to it voice-wise. Popescu's penetrating shrillness just about works as an expression of Cortes's obsessive temperament. Oliver, however, is pushed beyond his limits at the extreme ends of his voice in a castrato role that nowadays is really more suited to a mezzo than a counter-tenor. Lourdes Ambriz, meanwhile, gets Eupaforice's fiendish coloratura just about right – no mean feat given the indignities Kuri heaps on her which include wearing an orange body-stocking with rubber suction cups for nipples at one point and singing one of her arias sliding head first down a staircase on her back, then struggling back up it, still lying down, but feet first this time.
Gabriel Garrido The smaller roles are variably taken. Some of the best arias in the work are given to Pilpatoé, Montezumas's general: too many have been cut for comfort, though Lucía Salas does some nice things with what remains. As Eupaforice's maid Erisenna, Lina López steals the show early on with a gracious triple-time aria that is one of the score's gems. Kuri also makes the terrible mistake of giving Narvès a dog. Carré carried on bravely when the animal started alternately howling along with his every phrase or sniffing Popescu while the audience dissolved into hopeless laughter. Garrido's conducting and the choral singing from the Coro de Ciertos Habitantes just about passed muster, though the usually sensational Concerto Elyma's playing had more than its fair share of moments of imprecision, with some notably ropey intonation from both woodwind and brass.
The central theme of this year's Edinburgh festival is Europe's encounter with the New World and Australasia, and the complex, often tragic, dialogues and histories that resulted. “Montezuma” belongs in any major survey of the subject, but this production is also a failure that does the opera itself few favours. It's not quite a masterpiece, though it deserves occasional revival, and was considered good-enough for Decca to record highlights in the 1960s with Sutherland and Bonynge. Kuri has done it more damage than good. Anyone who has seen this will remember it for all the wrong reasons – and I suspect and fear that as a result, it will be quite a while before we get to hear it again.


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