Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico: Attractive Performance But Not for Everyone

SpainSpain W. Rihm: Die Eroberung von Mexico, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Alejo Pérez (conductor),  Madrid Teatro Real 9.10.2013 (JMI)

Conquest of Mexico (C): Javier del Real/Teatro Real
Conquest of Mexico
(C): Javier del Real/Teatro Real

New Production Teatro Real
Direction: Pierre Audi
Sets: Alexander Polzin
Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic
Lighting: Urs Schönebaum
Montezuma: Nadja Michael
Cortez: Georg Nigl
Soprano: Caroline Stein
Contralto: Katarina Bradic

The Teatro Real has dedicated their program for the months of October and November to the arrival of the Spaniards in Central America and it consists of two works composed in very different musical periods. The first work featured is Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico) by the contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm, which will be followed next month by Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen.

Rihm’s opera was premiered in Hamburg in 1992 and it has seldom been seen outside of Germany, except for a brief performance in Mexico a few years ago in concert form. It’s been 21 years since its premiere and it is clear that success has not come easily to this work.

Rihm’s music is difficult for the general public and his compositions are mainly of interest to musicologists and aficionados. We could start by discussing whether Die Eroberung von Mexico is really an opera. I say this because it does not have a true libretto that narrates a plot, but rather consists of  a series of texts by other authors which appear in the libretto in a fairly capricious way. Rather it relies  on oratory, like so many works in previous centuries that were based on biblical texts .

Rihm’s libretto is based on texts by Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz, and it is precisely this libretto that is the weakest point of the work: there is no dramatic tension in it. Suffice it to say that the most repeated phrases Rihm writes are: Neutre? Feminine? Masculine? At the end of the opera a phrase is repeated several times: A dream that devours the dream, at both sides of the dream. Perhaps this is poetic, but it seems to me better suited to a literary contest than to an opera. It is very difficult to maintain the interest of the audience for nearly two hours with a libretto of this kind. I have often thought that Wagner could have been even greater had he not written his own librettos and Rihm’s failure in this regard is more serious.

In musical terms, however, it is an interesting and original work. It might not be to the taste of the traditional opera lover, but I find it more accomplished than Jakob Lenz or Das Gehege, which are the only other operas by Rihm that  I have had the opportunity to see on stage. The orchestra is located at different levels and locations in the theatre, with sections in the pit and some in the side boxes, in addition to the royal box of the Teatro Real. It abounds in percussion, which has a huge role in the score. Suffice it to say that in the first ten minutes of the work there is only percussion. From then on the music is more or less interesting, with the best part being the truly outstanding choral music.

The opera is based on the story of the conquest of Mexico by Hernándo Cortés and focuses on the impossibility of understanding between two different cultures,  the Christian Spaniards and the pagan Mexicans, represented by the figures of Cortés and Montezuma.

This new production bears the signature of Pierre Audi. Given the dramatic weakness of the libretto, it is not easy to make a consistent work but Mr. Audi meets the challenge. The lighting work is excellent and there are attractive and original costumes for Montezuma and the Mexicans. The sets are somewhat symbolist on a fairly bare stage. The actors inhabited their characters with great intensity and the extras give life to the scene while the choir sang off-stage.  Overall, I found it to be an attractive production.

Rihm’s music was well served by Argentinian Alejo Perez. This work is not  easy to conduct, not only due to the difficulties of the work itself but also because sections of the orchestra are located in different parts of the theater. Mr. Perez drew an excellent performance from the orchestra. I should also mention the outstanding work of the choir and its director, Andrés Máspero, who has performed miracles.

Vocally, one can not expect great things in this type of work. Both Georg Nigl (Cortés) and Nadja Michael (Montezuma) proved to be authentic singing actors. Singing off-stage (in fact in the side boxes) by soprano Caroline Stein and contralto Katarina Bradic accompanied  Montezuma; they emitted sounds without text, ranging from stratospheric notes in the case of Ms. Stein to the deep ones by Ms. Bradic.

The Teatro Real was nearly filled and, considering that the performance lasted 1 hour and 46 minutes without intermission, there were no desertions. A warm reception followed for the artists, conductor and creative team.

 José Mª. Irurzun