Montezuma (in German)
Papadjiakou, Boulin, Sieber, Gayer, Vogel; Mercker, Grönroos; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hilsdorf. Production: Wernicke. Arthaus Musik 101 629, 140 mins., subtitled
Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–59), renowned in his day, resists efforts at successful revival. An accomplished tenor himself, Graun wrote singable but not very memorable melodies to pleasant enough orchestral accompaniments. He pleased Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great, who coauthored (in French) the libretto for Montezuma (1755), a study on the nature of government, which was finished and translated into Italian by his court poet. It's hard to fathom for whom Deutsche Oper Berlin reissued this 1982 performance in Bayreuth's Margravial Opera House, with the words rendered into German by Georg Quander and the score heavily reworked by conductor Hans Hilsdorf. In its day, Hilsdorf's foursquare work may have seemed more stylish than it emerges now.
The late lamented Herbert Wernicke, whose brilliant 2001 Frau ohne Schatten was sadly his debut and swan song at the Metropolitan Opera, must take responsibility for the misguided decor and production here. Wernicke sets the action in Frederick's own era, in Potsdam's Sanssouci palace, and has the castrato role of Montezuma portrayed and dressed as Frederick. Both the Aztec court and the Spanish invaders are in 1750s court attire, eliminating any sense of exoticism or cultural clash. This was the approach Tito Capobianco took with New York City Opera's famed Giulio Cesare from 1966, treating all of Handel's characters as courtiers. These days, such a tactic doesn't get one very far, and NYCO's Cesare had the advantage of superior music and more memorable interpreters (even if the performing edition was just as corrupt as Hilsdorf's is here). DOB's entire show seems ponderous and wrongheaded, with crinolines, lapdogs and blackface extras, not to mention long pauses, exaggerated, campy faces and gestures, copious tears and intrusive laughter over others' singing. As the production proceeds, one begins to accept its limits, and Graun did pen some intriguing numbers for the leading "Mexican" characters under duress.
The only singers with any (mild) name recognition are Los Angeles-born Catherine Gayer, playing Montezuma's chamberlain Tezeuco, and Finnish baritone Walton Grönroos, as a snarling Ferdinando Cortes. Gayer — midway through a four-decade career singing difficult contemporary music as well as the occasional Mozart or Baroque role — shows her customary vocal clarity, but her vibrato-limited tone can turn glassy. (Her character seems justifiably embarrassed by the proceedings.) Barbara Vogel, as the general Pilpatoè, produces her grating soprano in the same stopped-down Teutonic way, with clumsy coloratura and a cost to pitch. In the title role, lyric mezzo Alexandra Papadjiakou is not bad vocally. French soprano Sophie Boulin, as Montezuma's intended queen (to whom Cortes inevitably pays court), is well trained in Baroque style, but her light, agile voice vanishes down below and gets shrill aloft. Another pretty young soprano, Gudrun Sieber, sings creditably as the queen's confidante. Karl-Ernst Mercker (Narvès) sounds like a dry German oratorio tenor and acts like the Pirate King. For avid curiosity-seekers only.
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