Carl Heinrich GRAUN (1703-1759)
Montezuma – opera in three acts (libretto: King Frederick ‘The Great’) (1756) [136:34]
Conchita Julian (soprano) – Tezeuco
Encarnacion Vazquez (mezzo) – Montezuma
Dorothea Wirtz (soprano) – Eupaforice
Maria Luisa Tamez (soprano) – Ferdinando Cortes
Lourdes Ambriz (soprano) – Pilpatoè
Ana Caridad Acosta (Narvès)
Kammerchor Cantica Nova
Deutsche Kammerakademie/Johannes Goritzki
rec. Cologne Gürzenich, 1-5 June 1992. DDD.
Italian text and German translation included
Premiere recording. Previously available as Capriccio C60032-2
CAPRICCIO 7085 [71:09 + 64:54]

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 deleted.

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 and £126+ on

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 Ringhere – 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 EspañaThe Conquest of New Spain, translated J M Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963).

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, scene 5]

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.

Brian Wilson

Specialists will welcome this recording, but most listeners will have higher priorities.