The fate of Montezuma has inspired a number of operas, ranging
from Vivaldi’s Motezuma (1733) to Lorenzo Ferrero’s La
Conquista (2005). Graun composed more than twenty operas,
of which this is the only one currently available, a well-liked
Harmonia Mundi recording (HMC901561.63) of his Cleopatra
e Cesare directed by René Jacobs having apparently been
This was and, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only
recording ever made of the (almost) complete opera, though highlights
were recorded in the mid-1960s by Lauris Elms, Joan Sutherland
and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Richard Bonynge,
reissued on a 2-CD set together with highlights from Bononcini’s
Griselda (Decca Grand Opera 448 977-2DMO2). That recording is
no longer available, though it’s much sought after, as indicated
by asking prices of $200 and upwards on amazon.com and £126+
It’s a case, then, of take it or leave it unless Eloquence reissue
that Sutherland recording, as I hope that they will. Those who
decide to take it can be assured that the music – here presented
in slightly abridged form – is attractive enough, though not
more, and that the performances, despite the reservations that
I shall be expressing, are perfectly adequate, well recorded,
and supported by a decent booklet of notes, with the libretto
and a German-only translation. Unfortunately I don’t believe
that there is an online English translation, though one has
been made by Nancy Wilson and published by Associate Artists
Opera Company, Boston, MA.
I wish that I could say that Montezuma has been unjustly
neglected, but that description ‘attractive enough’ is the best
that I could muster. When it was performed at the Edinburgh
Festival in 2010 and the same production taken to Madrid the
following month, neither of our Seen and Heard reviewers was
impressed. I find myself largely in agreement with José M Irurzun:
“The musical quality of this work is not truly outstanding,
despite some interesting moments, but in the end it is too monotonous,
especially in the second of its three acts. It isn’t, in any
case, the musical interest that has led to its revival, but
rather the interests of Mexico to celebrate the 200th anniversary
of the independence of the Latin American republics. Obviously,
this opera offers a too simplistic view of the conquest of Mexico,
courtesy of Enlightenment-naïveté.” (See full review).
Simon Thompson, who reviewed the Edinburgh Festival production,
was similarly dismissive – see review.
That production, like the Capriccio recording, was shorn of
some of the recitative, but even with this reduction the work
does seem over-long, with too few ‘big’ arias to redeem it –
Frederick the Great didn’t much care for da capo arias.
I had been thinking that a DVD/Blu-ray version of a staged version
might improve matters – there’s plenty of scope for spectacle,
as when we see Mexico City ablaze at the end – but it seems
from my colleagues’ reviews that such might not be the case.
Since the production was of the gimmick-riddled kind that sets
my nerves on edge – see my reviews of Handel’s Aci, Galatea
e Polifemo – here
– and the Stuttgart Wagner Ring – here
– for prime examples – it’s just as well that it hasn’t been
preserved on DVD.
Graun was principal court composer to Frederick the Great, himself
a gifted amateur musician and composer of the libretto for Montezuma:
written by him in French, it was translated into the obligatory
Italian. Graun doesn’t get much of a solo outing on record –
one recent CD which bears his name (Capella Academica Frankfurt,
CPO777 3212) contains three works which may or may not be by
him or his brother Johann Gottlieb or by Christoph Graupner!
Even though he died in the same year as Handel, the celebrations
of the latter’s music in 2009 passed Graun by.
The fate of the Mexican Emperor Montezuma, who welcomed the
invading Spanish in the belief that their leader Hernán Cortés
was a reincarnation of the God-king Quetzalcoatl (possibly a
post-conquest fiction) and was killed, according to Spanish
accounts, in trying to quell a rebellion against his conquerors,
has inspired interest ever since one of those Spanish conquistadores
wrote a first-hand account of what happened: Bernal Díaz, Historia
verdadera de la conquista de la nueva España – The Conquest
of New Spain, translated J M Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Aspects of Díaz’s account can be interpreted as sympathy for
Montezuma, though his main purpose in writing seems to have
been to defend the conquistadores against the serious
- and largely true - charges brought against them by the Spanish
Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas. See las Casas’ Brevísima relación
de la destruyción de las Indias, translated Nigel Griffin
as A Short History of the Destruction of the Indies (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1992). We know that las Casas was read with approval
in Elizabethan England because Walter Ralegh refers to him.
Whether or not Frederick had read him, as the leading Protestant
monarch of his day, he inevitably sided more with de las Casas’
denunciation of the perfidy of the Spanish in the name of religion
than with Díaz.
Whereas Díaz and Cortés himself in his journal claim that Montezuma
was stoned to death by his own people for trying to pacify them,
Frederick follows the native American tradition that he was
executed by the Spanish. (Act III, scene 5, stage direction:
Montezuma ... è tratto al supplizio ... da alcuni Spagnuoli.)
[Montezuma is led to execution by certain Spaniards.]
Though Graun gives Cortés his fair share of the best music,
his first words on entering Montezuma’s city reveal him to be
no hero, but a man of guile: Modera l’indiscreto tuo coraggio.
L’arte e la frode usar dobbiamo ... Dissimuliam! [Moderate
your over-hasty show of courage. We must employ deceit and trickery
... let’s dissimulate! Act II, scene 1]
After which his assertion of ruling in loyalty to his king and
religion at the end of the aria sounds like a hollow afterthought:
regnar vi faremo col nostro Re la nostra religion ancor.
Not without justification do the Native Americans in the final
chorus seek to flee the Spaniards as barbarians who have committed
execrable deeds: Oh Cielo! Ahi giorno orribile, di delitti
esecrabili... Fuggiam, fuggiam dai barbari ... [Act III,
One peculiarity of the opera is that it’s written entirely for
soprano, mezzo and alto voices, all sung here by women, though
the role of Montezuma, originally written for a castrato, would
be ideal for a counter-tenor. All the singing is competent,
often much more, but never outstanding. The same is true of
the accompaniment and direction, the latter often verging on
the lumbering side of acceptable.
The recording is more than adequate, though the date of 1992
is acknowledged only in the smallest of small print in the booklet;
Capriccio display (P) + (C) 2011 much more prominently on the
wrapper and back cover.
Eighteenth-century opera specialists will welcome the return
of this recording, but most listeners will have higher priorities.
For most of us, Graun’s setting of the Passion, Der Tod Jesu,
directed by Sigiswald Kuijken, might well be one of them (Hyperion
CDA67446, two CDs for the price of one). Even if you have the
earlier Németh version on Quintana (QUI903061), the Hyperion
is more generous with repeats.