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Edinburgh International Festival 2010 (2) - Carl Heinrich Graun,  Montezuma: Soloists, Concerto Elyma, Coro de Ciertos Habitantes. Musical director: Gabriel Garrido. King’s Theatre, 14. 8.2010 (SRT)

Montezuma – Flavio Oliver

Eupaforice – Lourdes Ambriz

Cortes – Adrián-George Popescu

Narvès – Christophe Carré

Tezueco – Rogelio Marín

Erisenna – Lina López

Pilpatoè – Lucia Salas

Stage Director – Claudio Valdés Kuri


The theme of this year’ Edinburgh International Festival is Oceans Apart. Festival Director Jonathan Mills is trying to establish a conversation about how different cultures interact and influence one another and the consequences this has for both European and non-European groups. This neglected opera seemed to be the perfect vehicle for exploring this: an opera in Italian by a German composer with a libretto by Frederick the Great of Prussia, examining the conquest of Mexico by Cortes in the 16th Century, specifically the capture and execution of the Mexican Emperor Montezuma. (Incidentally, the scholarly historical programme note was written by one of the curators of the British Museum’s blockbuster Montezuma exhibition of 2009-10.) There exists here the potential for endless layers of meaning and deciphering: a libretto by an allegedly liberal absolute monarch, exploring an event in their relatively recent history, set in Mexico but viewed through a European prism through the highly stylised European form of opera. Frederick’s libretto is very much in the Enlightenment mode of the Noble Savage, viewing the Spanish as monstrous villains while the Mexicans suffer with dignity, thus remaining a surprisingly contemporary view for our post-colonial culture. Montezuma himself, however, is in many ways a portrait of Frederick himself; an Enlightened ruler constrained by the law who places justice and mercy above all. Equally the emperor’s fiancée, Eupaforice, is the vessel for all his more humane – dare we say feminine? – qualities, defending her lover in the face of all opposition and begging for mercy even unto death. This scenario is redolent with possibility.

Things began well: hawkers moved among the audience selling souvenirs before the lights went down, reminding us that the entire opera is merely a souvenir of Mexico, and in the opening scene Valdés Kuri undermines Montezuma’s lofty claims for his liberal humanitarianism by showing his bloodthirsty participation in human sacrifice to the Sun god. This was as sharp and suggestive as it got, however. The theme of the production was the way the Mexicans are corrupted by the influence of the Europeans, but had the director written this in neon lights he could not have made it more obvious than he did. The Mexicans yield to – and presumably are corrupted by?! – the consumer goods being pedalled on stage. When Narvès, Cortes’ captain, first appears he demolishes a house of cards with a Coke bottle and then leads the Mexican queen into captivity and humiliation with the offer of some sparkly shoes. When Montezuma is captured his “chains” consist of a tacky rainbow-bright poncho and a touristy “Viva Mexico” sombrero, perhaps the clumsiest dramaturgy I have seen all year. At the end of Act II when the Mexicans plan a revolt to free their emperor a modern political rally is staged, complete with loudhailer. The stage is plastered with posters calling for freedom for political prisoners, and a modern Mexican flag bestrides the set with the slogan Tierra y libertad on it. This was the stagecraft of the sledgehammer, an insult to an intelligent audience. Things threatened to become interesting in Act III when all the characters (and the orchestra) appeared dressed in their civilian clothes and the ending, a piece of Mexican Baroque by Manuel de Sumaya, seemed to suggest an ultimate synthesis of the two cultures. This might have made an interesting show but it was a touch for which no groundwork had been laid and thus lost much of its potential power.

Sadly the musical performances were not enough to sustain the concept. The easy standout among the countertenors was Flavio Oliver as a naïve, heroic and finally noble Montezuma. Popescu’s Cortes was the most exciting presence on stage but pitching issues let him down progressively as the night wore on. Christophe Carré’s whiny Narvès was upstaged by the dog he carried with him, barking and whimpering every time his master began to sing. Rogelio Marín was a lamentably weak tenor, lacking confidence and vigour in any of his arias, while Lucia Salas sounded shrill and insecure. Lourdes Ambriz as the heroine had a very shaky beginning but developed in confidence to a strong aria of sorrow at the end. Only Lina López left me wanting more, a bright, sweet voice which articulated with confidence, even when singing through a loudhailer. The biggest disappointment was Garrido’s direction, pedestrian and homogeneous where the same speed seemed to govern most of his tempo decisions, and there seemed to be a total lack of confidence in his players and singers.

Maybe the real fault is the work itself. Graun’s music is attractive enough with an interesting battle scene and some fine character arias in Act III, but it’s mostly very mediocre and not a patch on the work of his contemporaries. It’s also structurally weak: Act II, in particular, is far too long, and that’s in the abridged version! No: this could have been a fascinating evening but instead, for me, was a damp squib and a missed opportunity with disappointing performances and dreadful direction. This is one work that might have been better left neglected.

Simon Thompson

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