By rights, opera should never work and that goes doubly, triply perhaps, for Baroque opera seria with its alternating recitatives and showcase arias, its absurdly elaborate plots of which it is just too easy to make fun, all of that vocal decoration for its own sake, and on and on. And yet, and yet ... time and again it somehow does work. It worked splendidly on Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica in the second, final performance of Long Beach Opera's production of Antonio Vivaldi's 1733 Motezuma, albeit on terms that would largely baffle the opera's original creators.
The premise of the Long Beach production is not a new one: a group of people, for psychological or supernatural reasons, find themselves compelled to act out events from the distant past. Here, the group is attending a private reception in a museum or high-priced gallery exhibiting artifacts associated with the Aztecs and Montezuma. The exhibition's title -- "Motezuma: A Pre-Columbian Aesthetic for a Post-Modern World" -- is projected on a large screen at the rear; that screen later provides a running visual commentary on the action in the form of wittily chosen archival film footage, as well as a convenient place to project the supertitle translations of the Italian arias.
Chief among the Champagne-swozzling guests is a blonde starlet engaged in a happily torrid lesbian relationship with the artist/designer behind the installation; the jolly pair is modeled for no particular reason on Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, right down to Ronson's penchant for menswear and her distinctive hat. Also in attendance are the actress' disapproving father, her sympathetic and long suffering mother, the officious and sharply groomed curator or gallery owner, and a busy personal assistant.
These "normal" identities are established during the overture. Once the singing start, each in turn assumes a character from Vivaldi's opera with the aid of various period props conveniently on display in the exhibition, the transformation becoming more or less complete with each character's first aria. The father and mother become Montezuma and his queen, Mitrina. The actress becomes their daughter Teutile (pronounced with four syllables, Te-u-ti-le, a la Tenochtitlan). The curatorial countertenor becomes Cortez ("Fernando" in the libretto), while the artist/designer becomes Cortez' brother Rodrigo, the [male] lover of Teutile. The executive assistant is the last to transform, leaving her Blackberry behind for feathers, facepaint and spear as she becomes the Aztec general, Asprano. Four waiters and a security guard serve as supernumerary warriors, soldiers, skull-masked sacrificial priests, and the occasional bit of architecture. At the opera's conclusion, much like the mortals emerging from the wood in Midsummer Night's Dream, the players' identities are restored and all ends happily in a wedding celebration that is gay in every available sense.
It is entirely ridiculous, the logic of it wouldn't outlive a mayfly, and it was marvelously entertaining.
Much of the credit belongs, as is so often the case with Long Beach Opera, to an able and committed cast of singing actors. Special praise goes to the two women playing male characters. The conflicted Rodrigo, torn between duty to brother and country and his love for Teutile, was sung by Peabody Southwell, who was also the raffish male Fox in LBO's Cunning Little Vixen in January. She delivered the full range of necessary serious emotion in Rodrigo's arias while bringing a fine comic physicality in the recitatives and in her Ronsonesque "real world" segments. I hope we will see and hear more of her soon. LBO veteran Caroline Worra's giddily courageous functionary-turned-cutthroat Asprano was the clear favorite of the sold out crowd, especially in the wake of her final, roof-raising aria.
Courtney Huffman's Teutile was a bit caught up in the physical mannerisms of the actress character in the early going, but came into her own with power and point after intermission. Countertenor Charles Maxwell's turn in the castrato role of Fernando took some getting used to, but succeeded ultimately as a slightly campy portrait of an effete petty tyrant. Who knew a conquistador could shimmy like that?
As history, Motezuma is less reliable than Mr. Peabody or Bill & Ted: it comes complete with a happy ending, Aztecs and Spaniards united in matrimony and good feeling. The obvious post-modern tack would be to posture it as a commentary on colonialism and genocide. David Schweizer's production, thankfully, spared us that. It had serious fun with the Baroque conventions and the absurdities of the plot -- "I escaped through a secret passage known only to me" Motezuma improbably explains at one point -- but never mocked the music or shortchanged the emotional stake of Vivaldi's characters. The audience, like the characters in the contemporary frame story, wasn't entirely sure what had just happened to them, but left feeling fine about whatever it was.
Long Beach Opera's final production of the season, a double bill to be staged somewhere deep within the hull of the Queen Mary, is nearly sold out, but tickets to an added midday performance on May 17 are still available at this writing. You should go, if you can.