Edinburgh International Festival review: Montezuma

Posted on: 23 August 2010 by Mark O'haire

A fascinating journey of discovery through the diverse contemporary cultures of North, Central and South America and Australasia is being provided by the 2010 Edinburgh international Festival which runs until Saturday, 5 September.

Artists from California, New York and New England, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, as well as Spain, Holland and the UK give this year’s event a distinctive feel as it explores the modern –day cultures of the ‘New World’.

The major discovery of the festival is Claudio Valdes Kuri’s production of Carl Heinrich Graun’s rarely performed 18th century opera Montezuma (King’s Theatre). The work bears witness to a clash of civilisations of epic proportions, between the old and new worlds and a battle for domination of one great empire over another.

The story itself centres on the unscrupulous adventurer Fernando Cortes and his Spanish Conquistadors who, despite receiving  a friendly welcome from their Aztec hosts led by Montezuma, vanquished and ruthlessly plundered and laid waste to their extraordinary wealth and culture. It was a brutal subjugation of a people seen as heathen and barely human by an invading colonising power.

Written in 1755, over 200 years after these tragic events occurred, Montezuma represents a remarkable collaboration between one of the great masters of coloratura composition and politically sophisticated and artistically talented monarch Carl Heinrich Graun and Frederick II of Prussia (music by Graun, libretto by Frederick II) and explores through words and music the complex relationship between the ambitious Cortes and the fatalistic Montezuma. Indeed the mesmerising baroque score lends the tale a beauty and emotion that implants itself on the mind. I did, though, feel that the carnivalesque final act in which past and present merge ill-suited the production and weakened it as a whole.

Mexican director Claudio Valdes Kuri nevertheless extracts vocally assured performances from counter-tenor Flavio Oliver and Adrian Popescu as Montezuma and Cortes respectively, while a cast of European and Mexican singers drawn equally from the old and new worlds led by Ensemble Elyma and its conductor Gabriel Garrido provided stirring support.

This certainly was a production which truly embodied the spirit of the 2010 festival.

By Laurence Green

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