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Graun: Montezuma / Goritzki, Julian, Vazquez, Wirtz, Deutsche Kammeracademie

Graun / Vazquez / Wirtz / Julian / Dka / Goritzki
Release Date: 04/26/2011 
Label:  Capriccio Records   Catalog #: 7085   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Carl Heinrich Graun
Performer:  Lourdes AmbrizAna CaridadMaria Luisa TamezAngelica Uribe Sanchez,   ... 
Conductor:  Johannes Goritzki
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Chamber Academy NeussCantica Nova Chamber Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GRAUN Montezuma Johannes Goritzki, cond; Encarnacion Vazquez ( Montezuma ); Dorothea Wirtz ( Eupaforice ); Conchita Julian ( Tezeuco ); Lourdes Ambriz ( Pilpatoè ); Angelica Uribe Sanchez ( Erissena ); Maria Luisa Tamez ( Cortés ); Ana Caridad Read more Acousta ( Narvès ); Cantica Nova CCh; German Ch Academy Neuss CAPRICCIO 7085 (2 CDs: 137:13 Text, no Translation)

Sic transit gloria . Carl Heinrich Graun (1703/4–59) was one of the two most famous composers of Italian opera in 18th-century Germany, his only serious rival being Johann Adolf Hasse at the court in Dresden. He was the court composer of Prussian King Frederick the Great. He wrote at least 26 highly acclaimed operas for the Berlin Unter den Linden opera house that Frederick built for that purpose, in addition to the six he had written for an earlier patron. Now, 250 years later, with the disappearance of René Jacob’s 1996 Cesare e Cleopatra from the Harmonia Mundi catalog, this recording of Graun’s 1755 opera Montezuma is the only example of an operatic output that rivals that of near-contemporary George Frideric Handel. And this is not even a new recording, but rather the latest incarnation—midprice this time—of a West German Radio recording made in 1992 and available on CD since 1995.

Frederick II, who was by contemporary standards—and certainly those of his autocratic father, Frederick William I—an enlightened ruler, encouraged the arts and philosophy, courted friendship with Voltaire, and was himself a musician of some accomplishment. He closely supervised all aspects of court culture, writing libretti as he did for Montezuma , playing the flute, even composing an occasional aria for insertion into Graun’s work, and mostly making sure that his relatively conservative tastes were satisfied. Despite this royal involvement—or maybe because of it; who knows—Graun produced operas that, on the limited evidence, were accomplished and in some ways progressive, especially in the use of more dramatic recitative and in some enhancements to the da capo aria. They were not works of genius to set beside Handel’s best work in the genre, but solid works that seemed likely to survive his death in 1759. (Actually, that was more than could be said of Handel’s Gay-damaged operas when he died the same year.) Of course, celebrity as an opera composer faded quickly when Gluck produced the first of his reform operas Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, setting the seal of obsolescence on Graun’s and all of the operas of the Baroque.

Montezuma pits an enlightened Aztec ruler against the brutal warrior Hernán Cortés as it uses the overthrow of the Aztec empire as a backdrop to the personal conflicts and tragedy of Montezuma, Cortés, and especially the fiancée of Montezuma, the fictional Eupaforice, Queen of Tlascála. Inspired perhaps by criticisms of Cortés’ mistreatment of Native Americans by such authors as 16th-century friar Bartolomé de las Casas, Frederick’s libretto follows the events arising from Montezuma’s welcome of Cortés on the mistaken belief that he was the reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl. It traces the doubts of some of Montezuma’s advisors, the treacherous subjugation of the Aztecs in battle, the taking of Montezuma as hostage, his murder by his own subjects, the rape of Eupaforice by Cortés, and her suicide.

Decca released a now out-of-print disc of excerpts of the opera in 1967 starring Joan Sutherland as Eupaforice. Her regal performance provides an unfortunate contrast to that of Dorothea Wirtz on this release. Wirtz, a lyric coloratura with a fluttery quality, is an odd choice for such a dramatic role. While not to Sutherland’s standards, she does handle the challenging and extensive passagework well, which is the norm for all of the members of this all-female cast. Other cast members are all Mexican artists, which given the opera’s setting hints at an interesting story about which the notes are mute. Also unclear is why the five castrato roles are all assigned to females instead of countertenors.

The best of the singers is Maria Luisa Tamez, the Cortés, whose sharply focused mezzo voice, technical facility, and incisive diction create a plausibly evil man. Her dramatic use of sotto voce is particularly chilling. Ana Caridad Acousta also excels as Spanish Captain Narvès with a very masculine use of her darker contralto and some exciting coloratura. Somewhat less impressive is the Montezuma of Encarnacion Vazquez, who has sufficient depth of voice and dramatic gravitas for the tragic character, but labors a bit on the coloratura and has no trill.

Johannes Goritzki moves the music along smartly, but misses dramatic opportunities with a rather generalized approach. The short Sinfonia guerriera and the tragic final chorus, “Oh Cielo! Ahi giorno orribile,” are jarringly jaunty, though surely Graun is much to blame; Richard Bonynge is but a bit more solemn. One wonders, though, what Harnoncourt would be able to do with them. The modern-instrument German Chamber Academy of Neuss is alert and accurate. The production values are generally high, with outstanding engineering, and the only reason to complain is the lack of libretto, or even reasonable synopsis, in English. Despite the promise in English on the outside of the box of “notes, complete libretto, and translations,” the only translation of the Italian text is in German.

Still, all criticisms aside, one must be very thankful that this recording exists to give us a glimpse of the skills of this now mostly forgotten composer. Graun’s work, and this recording, are well worth the acquaintance of anyone interested in Baroque opera.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Montezuma by Carl Heinrich Graun
Performer:  Lourdes Ambriz (Soprano), Ana Caridad (Alto), Maria Luisa Tamez (Soprano),
Angelica Uribe Sanchez (Soprano), Conchita Julian (Soprano), Encarnación Vázquez (Mezzo Soprano),
Dorothea Wirtz (Soprano)
Conductor:  Johannes Goritzki
Orchestra/Ensemble:  German Chamber Academy Neuss,  Cantica Nova Chamber Choir
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1755 
Language: German 

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