The premiere of “Motezuma” by Antonio Vivaldi at the Theater in Ulm
By Opera Views, Oxana Arkaeva
May 10th 2018
Production pictures by Jean-Marc Turmes
Antonio Vivaldi´s opera “Motezuma”, is a 285 years old opera-excavation and a surprisingly modern piece of the musical theatre. Known until 2000 only as the libretto by Girolamo Giusti, the incomplete score was acquired in the 19th century by the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter for the Gesang Akademie in Berlin. Lost during the Second World War, the archive was rediscovered in 1999 in Kiev, where the Soviet troops have brought their “looted art”.
In 2001, Ukraine returned the archives, and in 2002 the “Motezuma´s” original score was rediscovered again counting only 17 of the 28 arias and with no recitatives. The first official „world recording premiere” took place in 2006, when Vivaldi specialist and composer Alan Curtis conducted the recording for the Deutsche Gramophone.
Together with Alessandro Ciccolini, he created a version with Vivaldi-style recitatives, replacing the missing arias by other Vivaldi pieces. Further attempts by various artists to bring the opera on staged resolved in the legal dispute at the Civil Court granting the Academy the sole copyright on the composition in 2009. The above-mentioned Curtis/Ciccolini version is the one, the theatre Ulm, as the first opera house in Germany, has chosen for its new production.
The premiere began with the announcement from the Intendant Andreas von Studnitz declaring that the singer of the title role Martin Gäbler is sick and that the company was lucky to find the baritone David Pichlmaier from Darmstadt, as a short-term replacement. Pilchmaier, who managed to learn this incredibly demanding part in just two days, saved the theatre from the very realistic cancellation of the premiere, singing with impressive technical mastery and great musicality.
Antje Schupp, who undoubtfully belongs to the young and promising generation of the contemporary German music theatre stage directors, presented the strikingly up-to-date reading of the libretto. Defining the plot as “terrifyingly timeless”, Schupp tells the story about “how power controls people,” and of the eternal struggle of the indigenous populations for their right to exist. The libretto evolves around events of the disempowerment of the title hero Montezuma by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, here called Fernando.
The librettist also added some fictional figures like Fernando´s wife Mitrena, his brother Ramiro, a daughter Teutile and general Asprano. The evening that began as the vernissage of the “Motezuma” exhibition at the Museum Prado, undergoes several transformations from the showroom to the conference hall in the United Nations and later to the burning ruins of war (impressive stage design by Mona Hapke). The framed pictures on the walls first serve as the text projections offering the story of the meeting that took place on March 1519 between Montezuma and Cortéz, and later as horrifying display of war images, thus visually complementing the action.
But first, snacks and drinks are being served, and a guided tour is taking place. The white, clear-lighted hall showcases life-size figures of Mitrena and Teutile dressed in fluffy “Indigenous” clothing, and the sword-swinging Montezuma on the pedestals among baroque paintings and pre-Columbian artefacts. Remaining immovable for the whole overture, they somehow remind of the “Night at the Museum” movie, making curious of what is going to happen next. And indeed, the minute the vernissage is over, the “dead” Aztecs come to life, immediately engaging in the fast-paced action.
Undoubtedly dictated by the numerous virtuoso da-capo arias, coloraturas, cantilenas (sometimes sounding like a modern pop song), numerous ornaments, briskly tempos and explosive dynamics, this action and “Motezuma´s” score is very much typical for the 18th-century opera theatre compositions and especially for the style of Antonio Vivaldi. The Philharmonic Orchestra of the city of Ulm under the button of Michael Weiger presented an energetic, swift, though, at time disconnected from the stage, complemented a. o. by historical instruments, authentic sound.
The staging provides some earnest reflection upon amusing aspects and sheds light upon real historical events and figures. Not shying away from the slapstick, Schupp, often uses little, to express a lot, never overdoing and creating an intelligent, well thought through and sober political satire. Like, when Motezuma shoots an invisible arrow at Fernando, (impressively acted and sung, with virtuoso voice, vocal bite and softness soprano Julia Sitkovetsky), the later falls back jiggling his legs and then laments displaying a bandaged finger. Not so funny though is the scene when Fernando forces Teutile to an oral satisfaction, later treating Motezuma like a dog and pointing his automatic gun at the audience.
An hour later the museum is transformed into the conference hall of the United Nations, where the Conference on the Protection of Indigenous Peoples takes place. While politicians are having a small talk playing with their smartphones, the representatives of indigenous peoples attempt to sue the of the conquerors in front of the human rights tribunal. Their energetic appeal is simultaneously video transmitted creating surreally real atmosphere. The bright stage light suddenly is directed at the audience, making everyone visible and a participant of this political farce. Ready to fight, the courageous Mitrena calls for the compassion for “savages” during her big accusation aria (powerful singing and strong stage presence mezzo-soprano I-Chiao Shih).
Asprano (first hilarious as the mute figure and later great in her virtuoso trumpet-aria soprano Maria Rosendorfsky) violently waves the ethnic blanket and Motezuma even attempt a suiside. Despite all efforts, their call remains unanswered.
The indigenous people seem to have lost and instead, the tension rises. The diplomats, just seconds ago were smiling in the cameras, are already fighting. The general Ramiro (wonderfully sang and delightfully acted mezzo-soprano Christianne Bélanger) covered with medals, delivers a slap-stick “Little Dictator” show.
A quick press of the red button and the entire world is blown up. Reduced to ruins, with marauding troops taking selfies with severed body parts; the museum is now the place of burned ashes, machine guns and charred bodies: A complete destruction. The joyful Teutile (beautiful in singing and utterly convincing in acting soprano Helen Willis) turns to the grey-haired, old woman.
Prepared for the ritual murder and simultaneously filmed, the whole scene resembles the confession video of fundamentalist suicide-murder. A vengeful Mitrena declares revenge while flames blaze around her and the unfortunate Motezuma is being locked up by Aspano in the burning tower, luckily escaping the sure death. In the end, Fernando’s victory is celebrated. Amongst the oversized logos of Apple, McDonald, Shell and Monsanto the forced peace agreement and the macabre wedding between Teutile and Ramiro are taking place. On the ruins of the destroyed city, the new, better world will be built. Whether it will become a good one remains open. For now, it is just a transition from the terrifying night in the museum to non less realistic and sober reality. More information about production, cast and reviews here.