Die Eroberung von Mexico
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Die Eroberung von Mexico

Salzburg Festival

IN Review Salzburg Eroberung hdl 2 1115
Skovhus hits the road in Die Eroberung von Mexico at Salzburg
© Monika Rittershaus

FESTIVALS SUCH AS Verona and Bregenz help restore opera to the role it played in the nineteenth century as mass entertainment, but the Salzburger Festspiele — arguably the most blue chip of them all — turns back the clock even further, recreating a time when opera was performed at court, and only for the elite. I watched with relish the cast of the new Salzburg production of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1991 opera Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico, seen Aug. 10) parade through the aisles of the Felsenreitschule, a former riding academy that is the festival’s most versatile venue, and curse the audience for their greed. “Like apes you clutch at gold, / fingering it, captivated, / you all hunger and thirst / only for gold / like ravenous swine / rooting for gold,” German soprano Angela Denoke, singing the role of the Aztec king Montezuma, lashed out at the well-dressed men and women she brushed by. It wasn’t the only time that spectators became part of Peter Konwitschny’s wildly energetic staging, a coproduction with Oper Köln, where it will be presented next year.

The German director planted the male chorus, representing Spanish soldiers, Aztecs and even animals, among the audience, and they periodically burst out of their chairs and bolted to the stage in their inconspicuously formal attire. As per the composer’s instructions, there were also musicians scattered throughout the hall, providing additional percussion and trumpet blasts. Along with the jolting intrusions of the prerecorded chorus (which was taped two years ago during the work’s Spanish premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid), these choices ensured that the two-hour-long performance was fully immersive. 

Rihm’s elliptical libretto is based on texts by Antonin Artaud and features love poems by Octavio Paz. Despite its inscrutable moments, on the whole, it is far more successful — and less pretentious — than his Nietzsche-derived libretto for his opera Dionysos, which had its premiere five years ago at Salzburg. It is essentially a two-man show, an extended conversation between Montezuma and the Conquistador Hernán Cortés, which the other roles, indicated in the cast merely by voice type, either double or bolster. While the dialogue rarely if ever constructs anything approaching a narrative, Rihm’s stage directions explicitly describe action, sometimes concretely (“the Spaniards are being massacred by the Aztecs”) and other times fairly abstractly (“the head of the statue of Montezuma transforms itself into music”). 

Konwitschny disregarded most of these. Instead, his staging followed a man and woman through various stages of a relationship. It had very little to do with historical events, or even with Mexico (unless you counted the Frida Kahlo painting that was a fixture of the apartment set or all the tequila that the cast swilled), and far more with power dynamics between the sexes, and perhaps even with sexual conquest as an act of colonial domination. Rihm’s ritualistic, evocatively textured music and the general amorphousness of the
Artaud–Paz dialogue permits any number of interpretations. Konwitschny’s approach was dynamic, unexpected and full of humor — Cortés buys a red sports car and rides off with six naked bombshells streaked with gold paint; Montezuma gives birth to an assortment of smartphones, computers and tablets — and made for a provocative, engaging visual correlative to this unsettling, effect-laden score, with its free tonality and unorthodox orchestration. The director had two solo violins perform from derelict cars on the junkyard that sprawled from either side of Montezuma and Cortés’s pristine apartment. The white walls of that main set became a screen for video-game projections, including Pac-Man and Doom, which seemed to be obsessing Cortés during much of Act II. The stark, neon light that flooded the junkyard and the three tiers of arcades that are the Felsenreitschule’s most distinctive architectural elements (spectators used to watch horse races and animal-baiting events from here), produced a contrasting and enveloping effect in the theater’s damp confines. 

For all its violent, unsettling qualities, the music flowed confidently and organically — even inexorably — thanks to the committed performances of the small principal cast. Denoke, a fiery soprano who is no stranger to Salzburg, handled her jaunty vocal lines with fresh urgency. Bo Skovhus, the thunderous Danish baritone, balanced perfectly with Denoke and invested Cortés with both brazenness and vulnerability. Two singers flesh out Montezuma’s character musically, often from the orchestra pit: alto Marie-Ange Todorovitch sang with sumptuously low, sustained tones, while Susanna Andersson lent her stratospheric and coloristic voice to the offstage soprano part. Two marvelous vocal actors, Stephan Rehm and Peter Pruchniewitz, were perfectly cast as the dramatically engaging Two Speakers. Ingo Metzmacher, who conducted Mexico’s premiere in Hamburg nearly a quarter century ago, led the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien in a detail-laden and often breathless account of this propulsive work of Musiktheater, which is Rihm’s preferred term for the piece. At the curtain call, Metzmacher triumphantly held up the score, which was a stand-in for the absent composer. —A. J. Goldmann 

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