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Vivaldi's Motezuma given U.S. premiere by Long Beach Opera

March 29, 2009 |  2:44 pm

Motezuma1

Long Beach Opera turned 30 Saturday night.  It is older than Los Angeles Opera (born 1986) or Orange County’s recently deceased Opera Pacific (1985–2008).  Begun as Long Beach Grand Opera, the company soon got over its “grand” pretentions and discovered its inner plucky essence.  It has led a scrappy existence ever since, unearthing neglected treasures, presenting recent work and reimagining everything it touches, new or old.  It cheerfully courts controversy, scrapes by on the perpetual brink of financial disaster and deserves a medal for its unequalled history of operatic innovation in America.

And Saturday night in the small Center Theater, Long Beach Opera was, once more, lovable Long Beach Opera.  This time, the rarity was the U.S. premiere of Vivaldi’s “Motezuma” in an amusingly spirited and sexy production.  First performed in Venice in 1733, this fanciful recounting of Cortés’ conquering of Mexico was never revived and the score disappeared.  A musicologist stumbled upon the manuscript in 2002 in a Berlin library, and this was hailed as a major find.

That needs to be taken with a grain of academic salt.  All of the composer’s dozens of operas are rarities, despite a vibrant Vivaldi revival on stage began also 30 years ago with a production of “Orlando Furioso” in Verona.  Every few months another unknown Vivaldi opera may get a first recording, but when conductor Andreas Mitisek asked the audience Saturday how many had ever seen a Vivaldi opera on stage, nearly everyone raised a hand.  “You always remember the first time,” he said.

“Motezuma” comes to us a large torso with only the libretto complete.  Recitatives in the first and third of its three acts had to be written anew by Italian Vivaldi scholar and violinist Alessandro Ciccolini.  With 11 missing arias from a total of 28, Ciccolini found arias in other operas that seemed to fit and finished a couple of incomplete ones himself.  Only the second act is pretty much as we can be certain Vivaldi intended it. Motezum2

Mitisek and director David Schweizer took that, though, as a creative challenge.  They simply scrapped most of the phony recitatives (and most of Vivaldi’s as well).  What was left was either sung or spoken in English.  The arias were presented sung as written and in Italian.

The subject matter fascinates.  Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion was little more than exotica for the Venetians.  But interestingly Vivaldi treats neither the Spanish conqueror, Cortés (who becomes Fernando in the opera), nor the Aztec emperor, Montezuma (Motezuma in Italian), as sympathetic.  Both are cruel and one-dimensionally pigheaded.  Fernando is arrogant and calculating.  Motezuma is self-destructively impulsive.  Neither is particularly bright when it comes to battle but more than happy to torture each other.

Far more interesting are Motezuma’s long-suffering wife, Mitrena, who is ever trying to talk sense into the emperor, and the opera’s illicit lovers -- Teutile (Motezuma’s daughter) and Ramiro (Fernando’s younger brother).

Schweitzer’s familiar conceit is to stage the opera as the opening of a museum exhibition, “Pre-Columbian Aesthetics for a Post-Modern Era.”  Gradually Po-Mo gallery-goers become Pre-Columbian characters removing modern clothes, painting themselves and grabbing helmets and feathered headdresses designed by Marcy Froehlich.  But Schweitzer dusts off an old concept (even the Broadway musical “Aida” used it) with a film that runs above Alan E. Muraoka’s set, showing the Aztecs as seen by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and various Hollywood kitchmeisters.

Ultimately the concept barely holds but it also hardly matters.  Vivaldi was not, like Handel, a master of drama, which is why his operas will always be curiosities.  But he certainly could write dazzling arias that got at real emotions.

With a cast that appears willing to do just about anything for him, Schweitzer takes those arias and runs with them.  Teutile -- brilliantly sung by a young soprano, Courtney Huffman, just entering the professional arena -- is, for instance, treated as a supercilious young starlet.  She sings and pouts, sings and strips, sings and has sex with her lover, sings and steals the stage.  In the process, we are led to contemplate the impossible, that even Lindsay Lohan might have an inner life.  I hope opera talent scouts were on hand Saturday or will show up for the production’s repeat Sunday in Santa Monica.

Motezuma3_4 The cast is full of dynamic, daring actors.  Another young singer, Peabody Southwell, was a rubber-faced Ramiro, a droopy and clueless lover faced with an erratic woman and an erratic war.  A flexible mezzo-soprano, she too is going places.  Baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez (Motezuma) and lightfooted Charles Maxwell (Fernando) added an excess of dangerous testosterone.  Cynthia Jansen was a Mitrena of hair-pulling sorrow.  Caroline Worra (Asprano) made a delightfully spectacularly transformation from museum assistant to Mexican general.

Conducting the early music ensemble Musica Angelica from a harpsichord, Mitisek kept everything moving and sparkling.  He got a little carried away with this cutting -- removing an entire scene from the third act, in which Fernando is supposed to be burned in a tower but escapes -- and ensemble work wasn’t always perfect.  But the larger god of music theater was well served. 

Happy birthday, Long Beach Opera, and hang in there. 

"Motezuma," Long Beach Opera at Barnum Hall, 600 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica; 4 p.m. Sunday.  $45 to $95. (562) 436-6661 or www.longbeachopera.org.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Courtney Huffmann as Teutile (top), Roberto Perlas Gomez as Motezuma and Charles Maxwell as Fernando (middle) and Caroline Worra as Asprano (bottom) in Long Beach Opera's "Montezuma."  Credit: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times

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