Review by David Gregson: Sunday, March 29, 2009
Celebrating 30 Years of Innovative Stagings: Long Beach Opera presents Vivaldi’s “Motezuma” (“Montezuma”).
Looking back over many years of attending productions of the Long Beach Opera, I can remember several that have left me nearly speechless – with last night’s remarkable (ad)venture into the world of rediscovered Baroque masterpieces serving as yet another unforgettable example – for better and for worse.
Normally a critic might come down heavily on such things as the generally ragged rough-and-readiness of the instrumental ensemble, the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Andreas Mitisek, the LBO’s presiding genius; or one might find fault with the technique or vocal endowments of various leading singers; or one could attack the stage director, David Schweizer, for subverting the spirit of Vivaldi’s “dramma per musica in te atti” by transmogrifying its deadly serious melodrama into a quasi-farcical romp.
No doubt, some critic will do all these things. And if anyone can honestly claim to be a “purist” in the realm of Vivaldi opera production, he or she will undoubtedly leap into the fray – although the astounding scarcity of Vivaldi opera productions on planet earth would seem to militate against such a possibility.
Whatever the show’s flaws, its virtues so far outweigh the demerits that to carp about any of the aforementioned would be sheer ingratitude. The whole production was so ambitious, so endlessly inventive and enormously entertaining that the problematic elements added to a potent sense of manic giddiness – a sort of joyous overachievement. It was an exhilarating three hours that seemed like two (unlike the LA Opera’s “Das Rheingold” that, for all its cerebral razzle-dazzle, seemed like eight).
Following a genuinely hilarious as well as informative pre-curtain speech (ostensibly a personal letter from Vivaldi covering everything from his rumored sex life to the silencing of cell phones and LBO fund raising problems), Mitisek asked Vivaldi-opera virgins for a showing of hands, and a vast forest of arms shot up around the auditorium of the Center Theater. Mine was among them – although I know a few of the composer’s works from recordings and DVDs. In the case of “Motezuma” (Vivaldi and his librettist, Girolamo Giusti, couldn’t spell apparently), the opera, only recently unearthed (or unboxed, as the case may be) was certainly new for everybody. This was the US premiere.
Long Beach, of course, was deep into Regietheater (director’s theater) before it reached much of America from culturally-far-off Europe. Judging such shows is very much a matter of “De gustibus non est disputandum” (I personally detest most of Achim Freyer and Robert Wilson, but I usually enjoy David McVicar, and often Peter Sellars and David Alden), and when it comes to this “Motezuma,” David Schweizer’s controlling presence changes everything.
What Vivaldi and Giusti envisioned as an exotic yet traditional opera seria with its themes of love versus honor and duty, Schweizer turns into a zany fever dream taking place at a museum exhibition on Aztec culture. The guards, the museum’s reception party caterers and all the guests get totally carried away, assuming for a time the characters of Montezuma and his people battling the Spanish invaders led by Cortez, or Fernando as he is called in the libretto. (A plot summary and historical details are available online). The results are close to comic mayhem, although the peculiar quality of Vivaldi’s vocal writing with its elaborate ornamentation and almost always fast tempi, comes through undamaged, even in very serious moments. Lord knows, it’s a humorously hyperkinetic show, but it would be hard to protest the absence of seriousness in vocal music that is, in fact, outrageously showy with only a few passages of delicate contemplation.
The soloists – and several indefatigable male “extras” that changed costume a zillion times (tuxedos, warrior garb, bare tattooed skin and so on) – all proved thoroughly engaging. The text was cut all over the place, and recitativo passages were spoken or sung in English, with the arias (and one trio and final chorus) sung in Italian. Elaborate projected super-titles brilliantly incorporated stills and film clips from Hollywood Aztec spectaculars and what I thought was the great Sergei Eisenstein’s “¡Que Viva Mexico!,” a film I have somehow never seen – but his photographic eye is unmistakable.
These texts, by the way, were made to resemble the sort of museum video lecture ubiquitously offered these days. Underneath the screen (with the orchestra at the back) were glass cases containing Aztec and Spanish costumes, weapons and other artifacts, occasionally utilized by the players, and one also saw gala reception tables with champagne and glasses. The stone visage of an Aztec god survived throughout until it was replaced by a neon cross in an amusingly PC finale. Giusti’s text, however, suggests that both the Christian and pagan deities are pleased by the opera’s conclusion in which Montezuma miraculously escapes immolation and his lovely daughter is married to an androgynous conquistador.
Schweizer has great fun with the opera’s inherent androgyny: Cortez/Fernando is a countertenor (delightfully and athletically acted if somewhat shrilly vocalized by Charles Maxwell); Ramiro is lesbian-ized by fabulous young mezzo-soprano, Peabody Southwell, who woos the beauteous “divine” moving statue that is Teutile, Montezuma’s daughter, flawlessly sung by soprano Courtney Huffman (who has the right style down pat); and super-butch Mexican general Asprano is sung equally flawlessly by the marvelous soprano Caroline Worra (who was one of the many good reasons to visit’s Ireland’s Wexford Festival last season).
Not to forget our leading oppressed Native Americans – the “supreme ruler” Montezuma, unforgettably well characterized by baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez, and his dynamic spouse, excellent mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen. Singing impossibly difficult music, a task he shared with everybody else by the way, Gomez managed to do all the crazy stuff assigned to him including being both comic and touchingly sympathetic at the same time.
Meanwhile, Mitisek’s orchestra plays well, despite many scrappy passages, especially those involving trumpets and valveless horns. One is not likely to be too bothered, however. It all has a can-do spirit powering it. With the orchestra at the back and soloists in front getting the beat from TV monitors, the whole stage set-up is terribly seems hard to work. And they still have to face a new venue for the second and final performance. A fearless crew!
This opera plays only one more time at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica. Unless you’re feeling awfully grouchy, you’ll have a wonderful time.
American Premiere, Sat. March 28, 2009 – 8pm
Center Theater, Long Beach
Sun. April 5, 2009 – 4pm
Barnum Hall, Santa Monica
3 hours, 1 intermission
Sung in English / Italian with English Supertitles
Reviewed at Center Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
300 E. Ocean Boulevard
Long Beach, CA 90802
600 Olympic Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Motezuma (Emperor of Mexico): Roberto Gomez
Mitrena (His Wife): Cynthia Jansen
Teutile (Their Daughter): Courtney Huffman
Fernando (General of the Spanish): Charles Maxwell
Ramiro (His Younger Brother): Peabody Southwell
Asprano (General of the Mexicans): Caroline Worra
Andreas Mitisek, Conductor
David Schweizer, Stage Director
Alan Muraoka, Set Design
Marcy Froehlich, Costume Design
Dan Weingarten, Lighting Design
Plus several un-credited hard-working supernumeraries!