Antonio Vivaldi's "Motezuma," first performed in 1733 in Venice, was long considered a lost opera, its score having vanished, like so many other works of that era, into the void of history. But in 2002, a German musicologist discovered an incomplete copy in Berlin, and since then various reconstructed versions of "Motezuma" have been performed across Europe.
Now, this legendary Baroque opera -- which tells the story of Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés and his relationship with the titular Aztec emperor -- is finally making landfall on the very continent that its characters so gloriously celebrate.
On Saturday, Long Beach Opera will present the U.S. premiere of "Motezuma" in collaboration with the local Baroque performance group Musica Angelica. In fact, the production will mark the first time that a staged version of the opera has been performed in the Western Hemisphere. (A concert version was produced in Mexico City in 2007.)
How did a long-buried treasure by Vivaldi -- the prolific Italian master of the Baroque, beloved for "The Four Seasons" -- wind up at Long Beach Opera? The answer has a lot to do with the company's artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, who has made it his mission to seek out rare and unconventional works.
In the past, he has produced Grigory Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank," Richard Strauss' "The Silent Woman" and Jacques Offenbach's "La Périchole." Not surprisingly, when he read about the rediscovery of "Motezuma," he thought it would be a perfect fit for his company.
"It's an unknown piece, it has a great story, and it fits well with California, considering its history with Mexico," Mitisek said recently. (With only six solo parts, the opera is also an ideal match for the company's small operating budget.)
The "Motezuma" the audience will hear this week is the result of a painstaking reconstruction undertaken by Baroque specialists Alessandro Ciccolini and Alan Curtis. Using the score that was discovered in Berlin's Sing-Akademie archive, they came up with approximately 30% of their completed version using other works by Vivaldi, on the premise that the composer is known to have recycled his own music.
For example, the conclusion of the first act was among the sections missing, but Ciccolini and Curtis concluded from the text of the surviving libretto that Vivaldi had written an aria. They eventually found similarities with the text of another aria from "Griselda" (which Vivaldi wrote after "Motezuma") and grafted the music from that one onto the "Motezuma" words, with adjustments for continuity.
The pair performed a similar feat of musical surgery for the Act 3 aria "L'aquila generosa," extrapolating the score from the first 46 measures of a first violin part that Vivaldi had written for an unknown aria.
Despite all the guesswork and transplanting involved, " 'Motezuma' is to a large extent original material, much more so than his other operas," Curtis said.
A happy fiction
"Motezuma" recounts a highly fictionalized version of the Spanish conquest of what is now Mexico. (The unusual spelling of the title is faithful to the way the librettist, Luigi Giusti, spelled it in his manuscript.) Set in 1519, the plot centers on the military machinations of Fernando (the Cortés character) and his brother Ramiro as they attempt to defeat the Aztec emperor.
But complications arise from a romance between Ramiro and the Aztec princess Teutile. Much treachery ensues -- until everything is resolved amicably and the lovers are married in a joyous ceremony.
The opera's happy ending stands in stark contrast to history: Montezuma died a violent death, some historians believe by Cortés' own hand. But happy endings were the custom in Baroque operas, and Vivaldi altered the facts to fit the whims of the time.
In a review of a 2006 Deutsche Grammophon recording of "Motezuma," Times music critic Mark Swed wrote that the opera "provides an amusingly fanciful take on a Mexico that never remotely was, making it a Baroque equivalent of many a summer movie."
For the Long Beach production, director David Schweizer has gone even further in the direction of make-believe by setting the story in both the past and the present, allowing the characters to travel effortlessly through time.
As the overture plays, the performers roam through a contemporary museum exhibit of Mexican artifacts, socializing and drinking Champagne. Gradually, they each become characters in Vivaldi's opera, as the exhibit magically draws them into the story.
"There's an outlandish storybook quality to the opera. The history has been filtered through so many layers of disinformation. It was intended to be a sexy, exotic spectacle," Schweizer said.
The director is no stranger to provocative operas, having worked with the Long Beach company on a racy 1998 production of Henry Purcell's "The Indian Queen" that featured nude stagehands and a shirtless conductor.
"I think 'Motezuma' will also have an edge like that but to a more discreet degree," he said.
In the opening scene, soprano Courtney Huffman appears onstage as a spoiled Hollywood celebrity, loosely based on Lindsay Lohan. As the opera progresses, she exchanges her designer threads for more traditional garb as she morphs into Teutile. "When I first learned how we were going to do it, I was like 'Oh, my God,' " the soprano recalled during a recent rehearsal. "I'm going to have to start learning to flip my hair more and act all princessy."
For the title role, baritone Roberto Gomez starts out as a boho artist in the Julian Schnabel vein before he transforms into the emperor. "We're trying to discover aspects of these characters that wouldn't be possible with a traditional staging," he said.
To make the production yet more audience-friendly, the creative team has also condensed the opera's recitatives -- the sing-speak passages that serve to move the plot along. Those sections will be performed in English while the rest will be sung in the original Italian.
By some accounts, Vivaldi wrote 95 operas, although today he is known mostly for his instrumental and choral works. The reemergence of "Motezuma" should help to stoke interest in his operatic oeuvre, said Mitisek, who is conducting the Long Beach production.
"I hope that he gets better appreciated as an opera composer. It takes time, especially in America, where the opera companies are more conservative than in Europe," Mitisek said.
"People are afraid to program something unknown, especially these days, and Vivaldi isn't a known opera composer. But his operas are worth knowing more, and I think there will be a slow discovery."