MontezumaCarl Heinrich Graun - Montezuma

Deutsche Oper, Markgräfflichen Opernhaus, Bayreuth 1982 | Hans Hilsdorf, Herbert Wernicke, Alexandra Papadjiakou, Sophie Boulin, Gudrun Sieber, Catherine Gayer, Barbara Vogel, Walton Grönroos, Karl-Ernst Mercker | Arthaus

Released as part of the Deutsche Oper Archive series, this 1982 recording of Carl Heinrich Graun’s Montezuma may not be the most authentic representation of a rare work of Baroque opera seria or the best quality in terms of video presentation, but it’s a performance that is well worth preserving for a number of reasons. Although there are have been some revivals and discoveries of the operas of J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach in recent years, there are very few recordings available of any of Graun’s work, despite the fact that he was an important figure in German opera composition of the period, working as Kapellmeister to King Friedrich II of Prussia, Frederick the Great. It’s his relationship with the latter which is the most notable aspect of this particular work, Montezuma (1755) - aside from the fine musical qualities of the work itself - with the King himself even providing the libretto for the opera, and it’s this aspect that is considered in the actual production, recorded in the suitably regal venue of the Markgräfflichen Opernhaus at Bayreuth.

It’s not difficult to see what would have attracted Frederick the Great to the subject of Montezuma, as not only is the subject that considers the duty of a great ruler towards his people a popular subject for opera seria - they were written for royal courts - particularly compositions written or following the Metastasian model, but it’s one that evidently has political relevance here for the librettist himself. Montezuma accordingly is characterised as a benevolent ruler, who sees his duty to resolve human misery, not to rule over his subjects by force. Mexico under the Aztec ruler therefore is a kind of a Golden Age, the people happy and contented, secure in their love for their ruler and the peace his great reign promises against the threat of weaker neighbours. Convention would insist on a romantic aspect to the opera, and here, happiness eludes Montezuma until he finds someone worthy to share his throne with him. That person is Eupaforice, the Queen of Tlascála, who will also ally him with another empire and strengthen his position and the security of his people.

It’s a fairly conventional opera seria then in this respect. Montezuma sings of length of his devotion to his people and his duty, and of striving for personal happiness. The plot ties both aspects together rather well with the arrival of the Spanish, Montezuma’s general Plipatoè warning him that Cortes poses a serious threat, while Eupaforice intimates that she has premonitions of doom. In his goodness and with faith in human nature, Montezuma however invites Cortes and Narvès to his wedding, only to be betrayed. If the relevance to Friedrich II’s time isn’t obvious - the Seven Years’ War would commence a year later in 1756, plunging Prussia into conflict with Austria and then Sweden the year after that - the relevance of the work when viewed in the light of historical events is made apparent in the staging of this production by Herbert Wernicke. Clearly not set in any exotic location, but rather in a more European palatial setting and gardens, the Aztecs moreover wear the period costume of the courts of the 18th century with powdered wigs, ball gowns and military greatcoats. The production would also seem to end with a reading of Frederick the Great’s actual declaration of war, as if the preceding opera has just been a warning that kindness and wisdom in a ruler is admirable, but sometimes he needs to be wise enough to chose when to fight for those freedoms.

If there are some minor liberties taken with the setting to put the work into context (and considering the writer of the libretto, it’s certainly a valid approach), the approach taken with the actual performance would be less justifiable today than they were perhaps when this production was recorded back in 1982. The first clue is that the work only runs to 2 hours and 20 minutes in length, when you could expect an opera seria of this period to be between three to four hours long. Considerable cuts have been applied therefore, and - considering that most of the expository recitative would appear to have been left intact to carry the plot, much of those cuts would have been applied to the long repetitions of the aria da capo with some perhaps excised altogether. That’s understandable for a performance of a very rare Baroque opera, when the performance of any Baroque opera at all - even Handel - would have been very rare indeed. To make it a little easier on the audience, Montezuma is also sung here in German, rather than the original Italian (it was probably written in French by Friedrich II before being translated to the common Italian for opera seria). Although inauthentic, this however works in favour of the production’s parallel to the historical Prussian Empire.

Thirty years ago, part of the reason why Baroque opera was so rarely performed was that there simply weren’t musicians trained to play the period instruments. Accordingly, other than the use of the harpsichord, the music has been arranged to fit modern orchestra instruments, but the whole pace and rhythm of the performance nonetheless feels absolutely right. Back in 1982, there weren’t any countertenors who could specialise in taking on the castrato roles of the work, so they are taken up here by female sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, which actually has the impact of making all the Aztecs in this production of Montezuma female and the Spanish male. If the work is mostly fairly conventional and not terribly dramatic, with stately marching rhythms and expressions of noble sentiments, there are nonetheless some lovely arias and one particularly fine duet between Montezuma and Eupaforice in Act III (’Ach, nur für Dich’ in German). The singing is also exceptionally good, particularly mezzo-soprano Alexandra Papadjiakou as Montezuma, and the performance of the Deutsche orchestra is also strong, performed with an elegant brio.

Released on DVD only, the video quality isn’t up to the standards you would expect today, but certainly acceptable and even very good despite the limitations of the source material. Clearly shot on video 4:3 for television broadcast, there’s a certain amount of noise and shimmer in the background, a level of graininess, and chroma noise, but it has nonetheless clearly been fully restored, the colours well-defined, strongly contrasted and a surprising level of sharpness and detail evident. The transfer is also very stable, with no flicker or wobble. The audio track is PCM stereo only and it’s also fine, with decent clarity to the orchestration and singing, holding relatively firm on the sustained higher notes. There are no extra features, but there is an informative essay and a synopsis included in the DVD’s booklet. The dual layer DVD is region free, NTSC, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.