There have been over thirty operas dealing with Montezuma, last emperor of the Aztecs from Vivaldi in 1733 to Bernhard Lang in 2010. The second such premiered in 1755 and was rather remarkable. The idea originated with Frederick II of Prussia who decided to fit in an opera before his next war against the Austrians. He wrote a French prose libretto which was turned into an Italian text by his court poet Giampietro Tagliazucchi and then set by his court composer Carl Heinrich Graun. It’s pretty clear that Frederick identied himself with the idealized enlightened monarch Montezuma, the ultimate noble savage, and his betrayal by forces loyal to the Habsburgs and Catholoicism. The ideas earlier expressed in Anti-Machiavel are very much to the fore as are Frederick’s own rather odd ideas on fate and his own mortality(1). Basically this Montezuma is deposed and executed and his world goes up in flames.
Like most baroque operas this one was pretty much ignored after the first performances. It was only with a 1981 exhibition in Berlin, Prussia – Attempting a Reassessment, that the idea of reviving this piece of Prussian Enlightenment culture arose. The driving forces were musicologist Hellmut Kühn and dramaturge Georg Quander, soon joined by Hans Hilsdorf, Director of the Berlin Sing-Akadie. Creating a performing edition was not entirely straightforward even though critical editions of the work existed. It was overly long and, for a German performance in 1981, it would have to be translated. In fact, the trio went further, not only shortening the work while inserting some instrumental passages but also transposing many parts so that all the Aztecs are sung by women and all the Spaniards by men. They also decided that the Spaniards, among themselves, would use Spanish as their language. It also had to be arranged for the modern instruments of the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra as no period instrument band was available in Berlin at this time. Herbert Wernicke was brought in to direct and he chose to go with the Frederick=Montezuma equation and set it at Sanssouçi in the 1750s using baroque type staging; painted flats etc. The work was staged in the baroque Hebbel-Theater to great acclaim and subsequently was taken to Drottningholm and the Markgräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth where it was recorded by SDR.
It’s quite an interesting piece. It’s fairly propagandistic and actually ends with a spoken manifesto against the machinations of the Austrians but it’s not worse than most other baroque operas. At least the plot is fairly straightforward. Musically it’s rather good. Graun was clearly a skilled workman and could write tunes. Montezuma’s Act 3 aria “Ach, des gestrengen Schicksals…” is particularly fine. In many ways the music reminds me of Haydn. Wernicke’s staging is fine in a straightforward baroquey sort of way.
The singers were all drawn from the Deutsche Oper’s ensemble and the individual performances are a bit mixed. It’s as if each singer has been left to find a baroque style that works for him or her (2) so Alexandra Papadjiakou’s rather fine Montezuma would fit right in with many modern performances of baroque works as would Barbara Vogel’s Pilpatoè (Montezuma’s general). On the other hand Sophie Boulin (Eupaforice; Montezuma’s betrothed) uses a lot of stock, capital B Baroque gestures and often uses rather a lot of vibrato while Catherine Gayer’s Tezeuco (Montezuma’s chamberlain) is just plain weird. The Spaniards all come off as Snidely Whiplash but that’s rather how they are written. The orchestra, conducted by Hilsdorf, sounds very good.
Technically this is a period piece. The sound is mono but surprisingly good but the 4:3 picture is very 1980s TV, as is the video direction. Fortunately the stage is small and mostly brightly lit so the effect isn’t too bad. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet is really excellent and a “must read”.
So, rather more than an oddity. It’s a piece worth seeing in it’s own right as well as the recording marking an early stage in the emergence of modern baroque performance practice.
FN1: Was it Rossbach where Frederick “encouraged” his wavering grenadiers with a cry of “Dogs, would you live for ever?”
FN2: It’s worth considering how little history with baroque works these singers would have had. A little Handel at most.