Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun to a libretto by Frederick II, King of Prussia

Rating: ★★★★☆
This review should appear in due course on the Opera Britannia web-page.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – 14 August 2010

Despite a somewhat slow start to proceedings, this Edinburgh Festival production of Montezuma was an inventive, surprising and ultimately very enjoyable evening.

An unsuccessful attempt at setting the Mexican scene was underway in the theatre as the audience took their seats. Shouting hawkers tried to pique the interest of opera-goers by attempting to sell them cheap trinkets and Montezuma T-shirts. Meanwhile members of the company huddled on the stage in peasant fashion apparently knocking together the props. Whilst this might have been entertaining for a few minutes, the production started some twelve minutes late and the joke had worn thin long before the orchestra began an eleven minute overture. It was something of a relief when the curtain finally rose to reveal the title character, the Aztec emperor squatting in centre stage – that’s the vertical as well as the horizontal centre of the stage, on top of apparently impregnable walls. Flavio Oliver’s Montezuma was to dominate the action for the rest of the evening. His singing was clear and strong though took some time to find real emotion. Indeed, it was not until a much later prison cell scene during Act II that Oliver managed to find a depth of emotion which was suddenly very deeply moving.

The emperor’s advisor (and on-stage dresser) Tezeuco was sung by the Mexican, Rogelio Marín. Although Marín looked the part, there was not quite the strength needed in his voice to reach out into the furthest point of the theatre. One suspected that had this production been for the intimate surroundings of a baroque court opera house, his voice might have been ideal. In the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh it did not quite come up to the mark.

More confident were Lucía Salas as the warrior Pilpatoè and Lourdes Ambriz as Eupaforice, Montezuma’s betrothed. They were each clear and confident in their roles and perfectly capable of carrying off the long arias which are such a feature of this opera. Ms Ambriz proved also to be capable of a significant tour de force at the end of Act II. Her singing whilst slithering down a steeply stepped, Aztec ziggurat was certainly enjoyable. Her continued singing of the same aria whilst she writhed on the stage was highly commendable. However, the completion of the aria as she manoeuvred herself in supine fashion back up the ziggurat arm by arm and leg by leg was little short of incredible.

Special mention must be made of Lina López singing the part of Erissene, (Eupaforice’s confidante) which was by a long way the most beautiful of the evening. The clarity and purity of her voice was a delight and perfectly suited to this challenging material.

The Spanish conquistadors were represented by Adrián-George Popescu and Christophe Carré and a large hound (played in a stage debut by Fly) who soon became very much the centre of attention. Popescu’s singing was confident and strong as the Spanish tyrant Cortes who was ably backed up by Carré’s Captain Narvès. Indeed, it was the arrival of the captain which provided the first real glimpse of the extent of the inventiveness of the production. He arrived marching through the auditorium with a large and slightly threatening, living, breathing dog by his side. Clearly this gesture was supposed to lead us to believe in the strength and the violence of the Spanish conquest. However, an Edinburgh audience was soon to become fascinated by the welfare and well-being of the dog in question. The first appearance of the dog was a triumph of dramatic surprise. The true genius of the occasion was only realised when it became apparent that the dog, had been chosen, like almost everyone else in the production, for her abilities as a soprano. High pitched yelps soon filled the air and quite swayed the audience’s emotions. Musical director, Gabriel Garrido’s excellent conducting in the pit was soon being mirrored by the wagging of a hairy tail right next to his right arm. A swift turn of heel and paw ensured that the tail was indeed to hit him in the face as so many had foreseen. The audience was entranced. Goodness knows what that particular aria was like. No-one was paying any attention to it by this stage, though Carré’s ability to keep going as though he was not in charge of an ever more excited hairy animal must not go unnoticed.

There was a lot going on throughout this production. Glorious straw head-dresses were worn by the Aztecs near the beginning when all was well, plenty of flesh was on display later on when things got a bit tricky for the Mexicans. Though much was done in traditional dress, modernity kept making its own intrusions. Montezuma found a T-shirt and slipped it on (one of those which had been unsuccessfully hawked around the auditorium at the beginning. The riches of the Mexican people had been represented by bottles of pure, clear water. This was taken from them, only to be replaced by Coca Cola bottles carried between their legs. The bitterness of colonialism was the theme of the evening, undermined only by the memory that the apparently peaceful Aztec empire was a great centre of human sacrifice as we had witnessed early on.

Individual set pieces occupied the mind as the arias came by one by one, each more inventive and more difficult than the last. Whether it was the Montezuma’s queen tottering along a catwalk by (and almost into) the pit, blindfold in high heels; or the sudden and very effective singing through a loudhailer to rouse a protesting crowd; or the giant pillar which Montezuma found himself marooned on and which no-one, not least his conqueror could subsequently climb; or the madness of the final scene when modern dress more or less took over and the trials of the Mexican people were allowed to dominate the imagery, there was always plenty to look at and to wonder at.

It is the sheer inventiveness of this production which will linger longest in the memory. Though Graun’s long, competitive set-piece arias could become rather tiresome in a dull production there was no risk of that in this Montezuma. The audience’s interest was maintained throughout by the excellent stage direction of Claudio Valdes Kuri. It was ultimately a production of surprises. After all, everyone expected the Spanish Inquisition. No-one expected the dog.


  1. […] are a couple of other Montezuma reviews out […]

Speak Your Mind