Montezuma at the Edinburgh International Festival

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Guillermo García Proal, Javier Coronado, Lourdes Ambriz, Gustavo Castillo, Amed Liévanos, Edwin Calderón. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

by Carl Heinrich Graun
to a libretto by Frederick II, King of Prussia

King’s Theatre
Edinburgh International Festival
Montezuma – Flavio Oliver
Eupaforice – Lourdes Ambriz
Tezeuco – Rogelio Marín
Pilpatoè – Lucìa Salas
Erissena – Lina López
Cortes – Adrián-George Popescu
Narvès – Christophe Carré
Concerto Elyma
Musical director – Gabriel Garrido
Coro de Ciertos Habitantes
Stage director – Claudio Valdés Kuri

Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one audience member utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival. 

The Mexican Embassy-sponsored, Coro de Ciertos Habitantes production of Montezuma (1755), a tragedia per musica in three acts — the music by Carl Heinrich Graun, the libretto by his patron Frederick the Great (translated from French into Italian verse by Giampiero Tagliazucchi) — is currently running at the King’s Theatre, a venue usually reserved for plays; Edinburgh opera events are more often shown either at the Festival Theatre or at Usher Hall. But this production is tailored to the King’s space, however unconventional, and makes inventive use of it. Cortes and Narvès sing from a balcony (audience-right) and enter the stage from the stalls, further establishing a connection between imperialist conquistadores and the audience. Act III moves the conductor, Gabriel Garrido, and his musicians from the cramped pit to the stage, where they become part of the action (frequently interfered with), forming a crescent around a column where a bungeed Montezuma stands, like the ascetic saint in Simon del desierto (1965) by Luis Buñuel, himself a Mexican citizen (stage director Claudio Valdés Kuri, founder of the Teatro de Ciertos Habintantes, studied film at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico).
Although this production makes use of original baroque instruments played by the Concerto Elyma, it is also full of postmodern anachronisms: a megaphone (the widely used instrument of 20th century Latin American revolutions), a contemporary Mexican tricolor (the design was only adopted in 1968, centuries after the fall of the Aztecs), Spic-and-Span cleaning agent, souvenir sombreros, and Coca-Cola bottles used as urine sacks, to name a few. It would be interesting to know the breed of the canine musical element supplied by Creature Feature, and whether it existed in 1755 Prussia or early 16th century Central America.
Themes of neo-imperialism and Orientalist eroticism are apparent. Cortes (in Act III, suited like a modern bussinessman) is ever the ruthless invader; Montezuma, the noble savage ruined by his own naivety. Some irony adds ambivalence to the Aztec king when he rips the heart out of one of his subjects, barehanded, while being applauded by Tezeuco for his merciful governance.
In all this Claudio Valdés Kuri shows himself a fascinating stage director. That said, he’s impossibly sadistic on the singers – especially on Lourdes Ambriz (Eupoforice), who must sing the tumultuous end to Act II while crawling up bleachers topsy-turvy, front to the audience as in the martyrdom of St Peter, only in a rather more spidery, almost birth-giving position. Elsewhere she is plodded with a phallic instrument by Narvès. The Italian word affanno (translated as “anguish” on the title screens, but also meaning “breathlessness”) recurs in the Aztecs’ complaints and it is easy to sympathise. The singers somehow managed well despite these adversities, but, rarely allowed to stand erect, they were not allowed to be on top form.
The opera ends with Montezuma’s execution, ordered by Cortes for his refusal to convert to Christianity. “How can I believe in a god that commands deceit? What can I think of a faith that teaches you to despise every man that differs from your opinion?” says the enlightened king.
The performance gave me a hunger for burritos, but Illegal Jacks closes early on the Sabbath.
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