01 Nov 2010

Cervantino stages rare Graun opera — The Mexican national opera?

Clearly, there isn’t one. Yet, Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1755 rarely-performed Montezuma is of special importance in a country celebrating 200 years of Independence from Spanish rule and 100 years since the Revolution that ultimately toppled dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Montezuma was thus an obvious choice as the operatic centerpiece of the 2010 International Cervantino Festival, staged in Guanajuato, a major station on the march to Mexican freedom that began in 1810.

Although he was his contemporary, Graun was no Handel, and thus Montezuma, even when performed with the dedication obvious in the production seen in the historic Teatro Juárez on October 14, is more conversation piece than masterwork. The libretto by Graun’s employer, Prussia’s music-loving, flute-playing Frederick the Great, was performed in Guanajuato in Italian translation.

CCC_1295.gifChristophe Carré countertenor as Panfilo de Narvaes

The somewhat simplistic plot reflects Frederick’s desire to be seen as an apostle of the Enlightenment — despite his own absolute power. Montezuma is an embodiment of the monarch’s philosophical leaning vis-à-vis the Noble Savage. (Recall that this is also the age of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with Voltaire being in residence at Frederick’s court.)

Mexico’s opera Wunderkind Claudio Valdés Kuri brought all the excesses of Regietheater to the minimalist staging, trying too hard to make more of Montezuma than is really there. Intent of fitting the work into the theme of the season, Kuri employed all the techniques of Brechtian alienation to combine in the production a picture of Mexico’s inhuman suffering with a vision of hope for the future. Thus in the title role countertenor Flavio Oliver frequently swapped Aztec loin cloth with T-shirt, and in Act III Kuri changed the entire 26-member Elyma Ensemble, an able but undistinguished early-music group, into “civvies” and moved them onto the stage. This act concluded not with Graun’s original score, but with a dramatic scene by Mexican Baroque composer Manuel de Sumaya. As Montezuma died, half the stage was wrapped in a modern Mexican flag. The substituted finale seemed to suggest an eventual and successful synthesis of cultures. Yet one wondered— to cite only one from many examples— whether Cortés on-stage rape of heroic Montezuma did not detract from the figurative rape of ancient Mexico that is the true subject of the Graun’s opera.

Oliver, by far the finest voice— and actor— in the cast, was a virile Montezuma in the minimalist staging, designed by Herman Sorgeloos. As conqueror Cortés Adrian’s George Popescu, an equally able countertenor, was the embodiment of the Absolute Evil that brought about the end of Aztec civilization.


As Montezuma’s mate, soprano Lourdes Ambriz grew in stature as she suffered ever-greater abuse throughout the performance. She made her lament in Act III a memorable moment in an otherwise often tedious evening of opera. Without distorting the figure, Kuri took advantage of Ambriz’ talent to bring a hint of feminist thought to the production. Gratefully, Kuri trimmed his staging to three hours from the original four. It was also to Kuri’s credit that he corrected Frederick’s idealist picture of Montezuma with an opening scene that showed that his hands too were soiled with the blood of innocent victims.

A co-commission Germany’s Theater der Welt and the Edinburgh Festival (it was staged by both earlier this year), the Cervantino, Madrid’s Teatro, where it recently played. It is yet to be seen in Mexico City.

Wes Blomster