This CPO release features Wolfgang Rihm's opera DIE EROBERUNG VON MEXICO (The Conquest of Mexico) over two discs. Ingo Metzmacher leads the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg and the Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsopeer. Rihm wrote the opera between 1987 and 1991, finishing it in time for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' journey, which set off a great deal of discussion of the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The basis of Rihm's opera is a stage piece by Antonin Artaud that depicts the meeting of Cortez and Montezuma as an encounter between male and female principles and their mutual ruin. In Artaud's depiction, it is Cortez's soldiers who are slaughtered like flies, with the gender archetypes standing alone among the devastation as the opera closes. An Octavio Paz poem and three Mexican folk songs also find their way into the libretto.
The music of the opera is generally Rihm's characteristic emotionally charged expressionism similar to early Schoenberg, with a real invention in orchestration. At moments, however, we find the remarkable style that Rihm pursued at in these particular years, surely influenced by the late pieces of Luigi Nono, where long low-dynamic lines are suddenly interrupted by banging dissonances and spatialization plays a role. In terms of the union of music and the stage action, Rihm sometimes excels -- witness the remarkable polystylism of the duet between Cortez and Montezuma in the second act. However, the beginning of the opera irks me; could Rihm not find any less hackneyed way of representing pre-contact indigenous tribes than pounding drums and grunting?
I don't really buy the libretto, and the music is, though often fine, not Rihm's best. Also, it feels like quite a bit is lost in reducing the opera to an audio recording without the visual element. One of the key roles, Malinche the translator, is performed by a dancer and thus is essentially absent here. I would therefore recommend this recording only to fans of Wolfgang Rihm who want to explore the whole breadth of his output.