Cynthia Jansen and Roberto Gomez bring dignity and pathos to their portrayals of Aztec rulers Mitrena and Montezuma.
By Cory Bilicko
It’s difficult to decide where to begin in describing Long Beach Opera’s (LBO) presentation of Antonio Vivaldi’s Motezuma (the composer’s spelling) at Center Theater last Saturday night, since there are so many exciting “firsts” and intriguing aspects associated with it.
Let’s start with the fact that it marked, to the day, the 30th birthday of the company. A remarkable feat considering not only the obvious (the economy), but also that it’s been around longer than Los Angeles Opera (which began in 1986) and the fact that Orange County’s Opera Pacific closed last November (after years of struggle to stay afloat). Buon Compleanno!
Even more exciting is that this production is the United States premiere of that Baroque opera, the music of which had been missing for 269 years, until a musicologist’s serendipitous unearthing of the manuscript in 2002 in a Berlin library. Giving the rediscovered music a proper resurrection, LBO is joining forces with Southern California’s premier Baroque ensemble– Musica Angelica. Since 11 of the 28 arias were still lost, Baroque specialists Alessandro Ciccolini and Alan Curtis reconstructed the score by using other works by Vivaldi, on the basis that he had sometimes recycled his own music.
Whimsically dramatizing the clash between Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez (countertenor Charles Maxwell in an enigmatic performance) and the Aztec emperor Montezuma (captivating baritone Roberto Gomez) in 16th-Century Mexico, it is the first full opera ever written about the Americas, and, likewise, this production is the first staged version performed in the Western Hemisphere. (A concert version was performed in Mexico City two years ago.) Librettist Luigi Giusti restricted the story to the time in which Cortez and his faction were received in the Mexican capital by Montezuma. Giusti invented a story of diplomatic relations between the two peoples and the reasons for its eventual collapse.
Directing this fanciful production that is perhaps true to LBO’s cutting-edge choices, David Schweizer has taken some liberties. He’s set the story in both the past and the present, updating the characters by first assigning them modern personas– spectators in a museum of Mexican artifacts, who then morph into the classical characters of Vivaldi’s opera. For example, Montezuma’s daughter (Courtney Huffman) begins as a young Hollywood-starlet type who then turns into Teutile. Her lover Ramiro (Peabody Southwell), who is the younger brother of Cortez, soon appears onstage, and the two engage in displays of physical affection. What gets a bit confusing is that Southwell is clearly a woman dressed in rather masculine attire, donning a “No on Prop 8” pin. (The casting of a woman is necessitated by the fact that Ramiro had been originally played by castrati.)
Huffman plays Teutile broadly, in a big, platinum-blonde wig, with much eye-rolling and a rather odd, recurring karate-like gesture. It all seems to be a bit much; however, it’s all forgivable for two reasons: she (and the rest of the cast) have immense vocal talents, and the Montezuma story itself has historically been so riddled with half-truths and fictionalized to such a degree that Motezuma can be relished on its own terms– for its celebration of the rediscovery of Vivaldi’s long-lost, beautiful compositions.
Another contributor to that musical commemoration who should not go unmentioned is Caroline Worra, whose transformation from a quiet, modern-day personal assistant to Mexican general Asprano is one that takes place before the audience’s eyes, as she belts out her aria. To witness her come to life after passively sitting upstage for nearly an hour is a visual and aural pleasure.
Literary and artistic liberties aside, Motezuma is a denunciation of brutal European colonialization. When Montezuma’s wife Mitrena (Cynthia Jansen, in a dignified performance that maintains the opera’s gravitas) questions Cortez’s virtue, she asks him if his betrayal is one of the customs he has brought from Europe to her exploited land.
In characteristic Vivaldi fashion, the traitors eventually reveal their humanity by exposing their flaws and frailties. The demise of powerful men is treated with compassion, which is one of the classical aspects that is unfortunately somewhat lost in LBO’s translation, amid the irony, time-shifting and attempts to update the opera for a modern audience.
Nevertheless, for its sheer power in performances by cast and musicians and its historical significance, Motezuma should not be missed.
Long Beach Opera will present one more performance of Motezuma at 4pm Sunday, April 5 at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica. For more information, visit www.longbeachopera.org.