The first thing you must know about Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico): it has nothing to do with Mexico. Wolfgang Rihm named his characters ‘Cortez’ and ‘Montezuma’ and past productions of this 1991 opera have reflected that supposed theme. But the work is more essentially an exploration of conflicts and dialectics. How do opposing forces interact? Do they absorb pieces of each other? Do they create something new? Do they destroy each other? If that sounds abstract, it is: Rihm compiled ideas and texts by Artaud and Octavio Paz into a libretto full of beautiful, ambiguous lines. Director Peter Konwitschny has interpreted the clash at the opera’s heart as the encounter between woman and man.

Bo Skovhus (Cortez) and cast © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Bo Skovhus (Cortez) and cast
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Drums signal the approach of a man. A woman sits in a living room, waiting. The man appears, bearing flowers, but his hasty physical advances anger the woman. Nevertheless, by the next scene they have settled into a sort of domesticity. Their kinky sex attracts a crowd of voyeurs, who eventually push the man into a physical fight with the woman and then into a mid-life crisis. He acquires a red sports car and accepts the woman’s offer of a bevy of dancers wearing only gold leaf. In the next image, the woman is pregnant. Masculine, feminine, neuter? Neuter: she gives birth to the virtual world (phones, laptops, and tablets). Projections show the characters’ enthrallment with technology. Their video gaming becomes violent, recreating the physical-world fight of the previous scene. Finally, the woman has had enough of disconnection. She destroys her children – except for one laptop carefully hoarded by the man. Angry at the woman, the others force her into a wedding dress. But she refuses to be tied to the man, leaving a dummy in her place and slipping away. When the man finally looks up from his screen and realizes she is gone, he angrily dismembers the dummy and slits his own wrist. When he has bled out, in darkness, the man and woman sing of “inexhaustible love, emanating death”.

Angela Denoke (Montezuma) © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Angela Denoke (Montezuma)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Konwitschny's staging includes cute references to the supposed setting (the calendar app, for instance, gives the year as 1519), but the correspondence between the action onstage and Rihm’s words and sounds goes much deeper. The apparently chaotic juxtaposition of text about birth, death, life, winds, horses, meteors and more all gets sense and motivation in the story Konwitschny has created. The staging is also rooted in the music. It often feels like Rihm’s score full of bizarre panting, unvoiced consonants, rhythmic tapping, and musical saws was written precisely for the events we’re seeing. This is true during both the violent and calm moments, and it represents an incredible accomplishment of creativity and directorial thoughtfulness on Konwitschny’s part.

There is something safe about the sound of an opera emanating from the orchestra pit. Die Eroberung von Mexico is not safe, and the sound comes from all around. Pre-recorded choral singing and amplification of various parts emerge from speakers scattered around the Felsenreitschule. Percussion, horns, and saws sit in platforms on all sides of the auditorium. The movement chorus (which also screams and grunts) begins the show seated in the audience, extraordinarily well-disguised among opera-goers in their dark suits. It is startling and exciting when they suddenly stand, begin yelling and jump over walls to rush onto the stage. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher somehow manages to keep all these scattered groups of musicians (from the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna) co-ordinated. The playing (and even the yelling and panting) is always perfectly precise, and Rihm’s music, while often chaotic, never deteriorates into mere noise.

Bo Skovhus (Cortez) and Angela Denoke (Montezuma) © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Bo Skovhus (Cortez) and Angela Denoke (Montezuma)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

The singers too maintain a sense of structure in their wildly veering vocal lines and intense onstage action. Angela Denoke’s Montezuma has a dramatic, direct soprano that communicates her character and emotions expressively. Opposite her stands Bo Skovhus as Cortez, who adds the challenge of surrealistic physical spasms to the already-considerable challenge of his vocal part. He approaches it with frankness that matches Denoke’s, singing solidly and straightforwardly. Both voices carry through the large space while maintaining a natural, spoken quality. Montezuma is supported beautifully by a rich-voiced contralto (Marie-Ange Todorovitch) and a bell-toned, inhumanly high soprano (Susanna Andersson), who sometimes sing from the pit and sometimes climb onto the stage to commiserate with her and do shots together. The two “speakers” (Stephan Rehm and Peter Pruchniewitz), who support Cortez, also manage their tricky rhythms and guttural grunts with accuracy and feeling.

Rihm’s music and Konwitschny’s vision have combined to create something extraordinary that is simultaneously abstract and concrete, challenging and accessible, surprising and familiar, modern and ancient, exciting and bewildering. If this is a possible future of opera, it’s one worth pursuing.