If I had scored a pound for every time I said ‘opera is elitist, crap and a ridiculous art form’, I’d be worth more than the Royal Bank of Scotland was.
But since nobody pays one blind bit of attention to what I say, I am worth as much as the Royal Bank of Scotland is.
Montezuma, the opera at the King’s Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival, was an astonishing operatic revelation.
In my youth, keen to explore all the art forms, I’d dabbled with a bit of the high stuff. But sadly, I just did not get it.
All those gargling throats screaming whimsical tunes with am-dram gestures did not speak to me and my poptastic experience of the world.
It was an art form for The Others. The be-beiged ones with sanctimonious bow ties; condescendingly comfortable shoes and disdainful trust funds. More fool me.
At Montezuma, I was bouleversée.
The story, written by Frederick the Great and composed by his Kapelmeister, Graun, begins with the Mexican Emperor, Montezuma, enjoying life and looking forward to marrying his beautiful Queen Eupaforice.
The Empire is festooned with wealth and gold, rituals and funky hair styles and was a civilisation that had evolved over thousands of years.
Then come the Conquistadores. 300 men, coming ‘in peace’ to pay homage to the Emperor. Montezuma invites them to his wedding, contrary to his general’s advice, where they kill all the guards, arrest him and declare Mexico belongs to the King of Spain.
Eupaforice plots Montezuma’s escape but the plan is discovered so Eupaforice offers her life in exchange for Montezuma’s. Cortes, the leader of the Conquistadores, agrees so long as they both convert to Christianity and the Queen agrees to marry him. Montezuma commits suicide. The Queen Eupaforice stabs herself and Cortes orders the slaughter of the Mexicans.
It is a thrilling contest between old and new worlds. The noble savage versus the blood-thirsty colonialist. The brutal subjugation of a cultured, peaceful people (I’ll ignore the Mel Gibson Apocalypto reference) by an invading colonising power who imposes new gods, seizes land and massacres millions in the name of enlightenment, or as we call it today, freedom.
The first most astonishing thing about the opera is that it is a genuine renaissance orchestra consisting of sackbuts, harpsichords, viols, recorders and all manner of ancient instruments.
Secondly, all the male singers are counter-tenors. Men singing like women. I had worried at first that the ‘uncivilised’ Mexicans were to be effeminised symbolically, but in fact all males sang like a bunch of girls. Extremely talented girls. But girls.
Back in 1755 when the piece was first heard in Italian, it would have been sung by castrati – professional male singers who had been castrated – only outlawed in Italy in 1870.
And thirdly, here’s where the genius of the director, Claudio Valdes Kuri, moves centre stage. Instead of playing the simple narrative with a straight bat, he presents a mash-up of contextualities.
Once the Mexicans have been conquered, Kuri magically mixes metaphor with surrealist representations of the colonised minds and economically dispossessed of the 21st century. Kuri brilliantly presents the end-game of what the Conquistadores achieved.
In the 3rd Act, Eupaforice, after all her Aztec beauty and splendour, is portrayed as a Mexican house-maid with duster and iron, dressed in a lumpy pinny, cheap loafers and wrinkly socks. The illegal immigrant wage slave of the American dream. The once proud queen of an ‘uncivilised’ nation now wiping the arses, and looted gold, of American domestic tyrants.
Narves, the Spanish captain, is a lascivious, leering soldier who, when called upon to massacre some more Mexicans, brings on a real, live singing dog. An actual tail-wagging, singing mastif who genuinely sings along with His Master’s Voice, doggy style.
This represents the modern use of warfare and ‘the sticks that shoot fire’ the Old world brought to the New. It also references accounts of how 300 mercenaries could take on, not just the Aztecs, but the entire continent with a couple of guns. Triumph through cultural and literal massacre, torture, rape and dispossession.
If a tribe were to defy the Conquistadores they would pay severly. The Spanish would tie-up whole tribes for days at a time with no food or water and then be let loose only if they agreed to eat each other while the children would be fed to the dogs. University of Michigan.
When Montezuma is arrested, Cortes, the leader of the Spanish army, forces the Emperor to his knees and rides him like a mule through the palace, then rapes him, on stage, with a belt round his neck.
Subsequently, Cortes tells the defeated Montezuma that he must give up his gods and worship Christianity, as he flagellates himself with the belt, praying for mercy for his sins.
Montezuma is then displayed as a defeated victim, slouched in the middle of the stage, with Conquistadores surrounding him and jeering; sticking a sombrero and poncho on him, marked “Mexican Cabrones” meaning ‘asshole-fucker-bitches‘.
Montezuma looks like a surly Mexican baddie from a Hollywood western: a caricature of an indolent, landless peasant.
The opera is filled with poignant cross-references. The blindfolded Aztec Queen, dressed in all her traditional exotic splendour, is forced to wear high heels by Narves as he pokes her intimately with a stick then sticks some dollars in her belt.
The Mexicans communicate their wish to revolt against the imprisonment of their leader by literally passing a baton, relaying information between them. One soprano even sings into a loudspeaker. They then become Zapatistas and comrades supporting Fidel and Che Guevara with posters proclaiming ‘Tierra y libertad”.
Montezuma’s bride, Eupaforice, played brilliantly by Lourdes Ambriz, sings an incredible coloratura while being slowly pushed off her throne down a huge edifice of stairs, then gradually tries to climb, backwards, up the stairs. All the while, singing her lungs out. A truly breath-taking operatic feat.
After the interval, the orchestra is transported entirely from the pit to the stage and both cast and orchestra have 21st century personnas ranging from a Miami Vice lookalike to a transvestite, a punk and a school girl, a halloween death skeleton and a pregnant woman, a student and a gay cowboy.
Montezuma stands broken at the top of a huge pillar, like Nelson’s Monument, preparing to die, covered in blood. The crowd of modern-day landless urban people walk hither and thither with bottles of water then the water is taken off them by the Conquistadores / Capitalists and replaced by Coca Cola.
This symbolises the loss of the ownership of natural resources by the poeple as they are sold off to private capital, which is only possible once the land has been stolen.
Gradually, the crowd runs faster and faster around Montezuma’s column representing how they have to work harder and harder as wages slaves while the capitalist gets fat from the plunder of the land and the expoitation of the economic system.
Finally, Montezuma looks sadly at his beleaguered people, realises what a fool he was to have been kind to the strangers, then takes his last breath as he throws himself from his giant pedestal.
The opera then takes a 3 minute falter in direction as it jumps completely out of Graun and King Frederich’s text and libretto and collapses into dissonant, atonal, spectral and electronic sounds. As if all art and culture has collapsed into a Matrix hole.
Directionless and without heros of the past, or hopes for the future, the people realise that capital has extracted, consumed and commodified every essence of value; from the dignity of women to the ability to live simply off the natural resources of the land; and even the banking system that had capitalised democracy is in ruins.
Bereft. the cast and orchestra hit a cultural wall where everything has broken down.
Gradually, the music conducter, Gabriel Garrido, takes centre stage and implores, urges and pleads the orchestra and cast to take heart and play, sing; play and sing together; play and sing together in harmony.
Haltingly, they lurch together, attempt to flee, return to the fold, and find solidarity with each other. Realising that art and culture is the only way to feed the soul when all else is lost.
Curtain falls. Standing ovations. I’m in tears. The critics pan it. My Nigerian friends want to turn it into a play about the British colonialisation of Africa. I take 3 days to write this. I am done. I applaud all who collaborated and had the courage to commission and present this most beautiful, intellectual and powerful work of art, in an operatic form.
A fantastic anti-capitalist opera with unrelenting images borrowed from film, politics, the past, the present and the colonisation of ideas. Bravo. An interpretation of which, I’m sure, Frederick II of Prussia, the complex enlightenment composer and poet, military commander and King, would be proud.
I’m sure the Royal Bank of Scotland would hate it.
I salute you.
Listen to the last genuine castrato: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wv-S3uoeTXg
The Zapatistas are a national army of liberation, fighting in territory close to the Aztec empire, to prevent their land being sold by the Mexican government to multinational American corporations. To support their activities you can join the Edinburgh Chiapas movement which raises funds for the horrendous conditions of the landless poor at www.edinchiapas.org.uk
Information on Edinburgh International Festival at www.eif.co.uk
- Montezuma | Edinburgh opera review (guardian.co.uk)
- Montezuma, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (independent.co.uk)
- Montezuma, King’s Theatre, review (telegraph.co.uk)
- A Globe-Spanning Musical Feast (nytimes.com)