27 January–24 June 2012 — Musikinstrumenten-Museum

Frederick's 'Montezuma'.
Power and Meaning in the Prussian Court Opera

Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung mit Musikinstrumenten-Museum, Ibero-Amerikanisches Instititut and Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz

The exhibition centres around the 'tragedy for music', Montezuma, composed in 1755 by Carl Heinrich Graun and performed for the first time in the royal opera house on Unter den Linden. Frederick the Great personally wrote the opera's libretto.

On 6th January 1755 a very special premiere took place in the Roy-al Opera House Unter den Linden: the opera Montezuma, a work for which King Frederick II had himself drafted the libretto. The Kapellmeister at the court, Carl Heinrich Graun, had set the story of the conquest of Mexico to music. The opera tells how the Spanish conquistadores overcome the Aztec emperor Montezuma by deceit and subsequently take him captive. Although Montezuma's heroic fiancée plans to rescue him, all efforts to secure a peaceful outcome fail: the opera ends with Montezuma's downfall and a gruesome slaughter of the Aztecs by the Spanish. In this manner, the royal librettist conveys his abhorrence of religious intolerance and persecution and strikes a theme, which runs like a thread through the discourse of enlightenment.

From what we know from the contemporary reports MONTEZUMA appears to have been very popular with the audience. This was hardly a surprise, as not only excellent singers were to be witnessed, but also a magnificent stage setting and spectacular visual effects. The royal court orchestra - an ensemble of high quality that stood comparison with other European music centres - made a significant contribution to this splendid event.

The exhibition shows the textual and musical sources to Montezuma, describes how the work was created and examines the conceptual background. In this regard, at least two people played a key role: Frederick's oldest sister, Margravine Wilhelmina of Bayreuth, and the Venetian Count Algarotti, whom Frederick II appointed to his court. From their correspondence, it is clear what Frederick's main concern was, and how the opera gradually took shape - both musically and dramatically.

The exhibition is not, however, restricted to this kind of source research, but also attempts to display as many facets as possible: stage designs by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, replicas of baroque stage machinery, historical instruments from the collection of the Musikinstrumenten-Museum. At the same time it embarks on an exciting journey through the world of opera of that period: How were the performances realised? What was so special about the vocal techniques of the castratos and prima donnas engaged to perform at the Prussian court? How was it possible to bring the old Mexico to a stage illuminated only by candle light, with no electronically controlled stage technology and no video projections, and yet so impressively equipped the audience was completely overwhelmed? What did this effect cost Frederick II? To astound the audience with the marvels taking place on the theatre stage, so that they would adore their prince all the more, trust him all the more - that was what mattered to him. The idea was to convey power through sensual impressions, while at the same time the opera was an apt vehicle for the King to comment on the question which was crucial for monarchs throughout the centuries: What makes a good ruler?

He elaborates on this question, setting the ruthless and devious Spanish conquistador Cortés in sharp contrast to Montezuma, whom he characterises as an enlightened prince. What was known, however, about the conquista in the middle of the 18th century? The exhibition, which was put together by Ruth Müller-Lindenberg, assisted by Vicente Bernaschina and Claudia Terne, examines this question, too. It shows original documents and objects from the period of the historical Moctezuma II, while also attempting to trace the connection between the conquest of Mexico and the discourse of enlightenment. In this manner, it becomes possible to experience not only Frederick's version of the story of Montezuma, but at the same time the fascinating world of court theatre.

The exhibition is being held as part of a wider series of events called 'Art - King - Enlightenment', coordinated by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in honour of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great on 24 January 2012.

The Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (or Montezuma), from: Andre Thevet, Les Vrais
Povrtraits Et Vies Des Hommes, Paris 1584
© Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin