Review: At Salzburg Festival, a Story of Sex and Conquest

Ingo Metzmacher
The New York Times

Armed combat between nations, brutal clashes of culture, a superpower’s ruthless subjugation of a less-developed people — it all comes down to the continuing battle of the sexes.
That’s the message of the experimental German composer Wolfgang Rihm’s 1991 opera “Die Eroberung von Mexico” (“The Conquest of Mexico”), as presented here at the Salzburg Festival in a raw and enveloping new production by the daring German director Peter Konwitschny, brilliantly conceived for the expansive space of the Felsenreitschule, originally a riding academy. This is the only contemporary offering among seven staged opera productions at Salzburg this summer, which is disappointing for such a prestigious festival. Still, the work is not often produced and could not be timelier.
Mr. Rihm was inspired to compose this music theater piece by Antonin Artaud’s 1932 dramatic scenario about the Spanish conquistador Cortez’s confrontation with the Aztec ruler Montezuma in Mexico. Artaud’s piece presents this conflict between diametrically opposite cultural worlds as a metaphor of encounters among what he calls neuter, feminine and masculine dimensions. Mr. Rihm wrote his own libretto — drawing on fragments from Artaud’s writings, lines from a poem by Octavio Paz and Aztec chants — to create a two-hour music drama in four parts.
To make explicit that this story of conquest can be seen as an age-old saga of male and female relations, Mr. Rihm wrote the role of Montezuma for a soprano. The character is a woman, who is reinforced by two female singers, a high soprano and a contralto; they at first sing from the orchestra pit, but at times join Montezuma onstage like sisterly allies. Cortez is a baritone, and he has a pair of male allies, two speaking roles. Mr. Rihm, who has explored a wide range of media resources in his work, has written a surround-sound score, what he likens to sculpture in sound. The ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra mostly plays from the pit. But small groups of percussion and other instruments are placed in areas to the left, right and rear of the audience; the score includes recordings of choral elements, not just singing but whispering and speaking. (This staging uses recorded choral parts from a 2013 production at Teatro Real in Madrid.)
Still, the libretto leaves much to be interpreted. There are vague stage directions describing groups of Aztecs and Spaniards trampling and stamping one another. “Eroberung” invites a director to interpret away, something Mr. Konwitschny certainly does here, giving every element an “explanatory action,” as he has put it in interviews.
In an episode where the stage directions describe battles between the Aztecs and the Spaniards, Montezuma, now pregnant, endures a tortured birth process. She delivers a supply of laptops, iPads and mobile phones: she “bears Cortez the virtual age,” as the director puts it. Again, this may seem a heavy-handed idea. But the imagery, backed by Mr. Rihm’s hazy, fitful music, overwhelmed my reticence. The battles are depicted in garish, infantile images of video war games (the work of fettFilm video designers), projected on the walls of the set and beyond. At a time when the United States is carrying out military operations in the Middle East through drone strikes, this imagery seemed all too fitting.
The impressive conductor Ingo Metzmacher kept all elements of the score in sync on Wednesday night and drew myriad colors and pulsing energy from the orchestra. Ms. Denoke brought a dark, earthy voice and poignant humanity to her portrayal of Montezuma. Mr. Skovhus, singing with husky intensity, was a hulking, unpredictable, raging Cortez. By the end, though, in an epilogue after they have died, these two leaders sit side by side on that leather couch singing Paz’s lines about “only lonely death” awaiting everyone, and wondering what the point of this brutal conflict was.