We Texans are, by extension, products of the drama that plays out in Antonio Vivaldi’s long-forgotten opera Montezuma. It’s about the fateful 1519 confrontation between the eponymous Aztec emperor and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ( Fernando in the opera’s Italian libretto). It’s also about cultural and religious conflicts, and personal conflicts between love and duty.
Seen through current lenses, it also picks at scabs of white supremacist assumptions. Unlike the tragic actual history, though, the opera has a happy ending.
Dallas’ enterprising American Baroque Opera Company, two years old, presented a staging of Montezuma in three weekend performances at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. The repurposed little church works nicely for such fare.
With a cast of just six, the opera was performed with an expert period-instruments ensemble clustered off to the left of the stage. As in baroque times, there was no conductor as such; leadership here mainly came from the excellent baroque cellist (and artistic director) Eric Smith.
Premiered in 1733, and apparently soon forgotten, Montezuma was long known only from a surviving libretto. Only in 2002 was an incomplete score of the music discovered. As was common in the baroque period, musical editors since have attempted to flesh out the opera by adapting the libretto’s words to arias from other Vivaldi operas. The local performance was a mix of original and adapted musical materials, trimmed to a 2 1/2-hour duration.
As if anticipating our age of gender fluidity, both male and female characters apart from Montezuma are sung by high voices, and they get some technical fireworks. Compared with the best operas of Vivaldi’s contemporary Handel, though — perhaps all the more so because of all the musical adaptations — Montezuma seems more generically baroque, less emotionally and dramatically specific.
The Sunday afternoon performance still made a good showing for the work. Rebecca Choate Beasley supplied a modest staging for singers who were not, for the most part, natural actors. The Aztecs were costumed in flamboyant quasi-native attire designed by Arturo Hernandez, the Spaniards in period-appropriate dress.
Vocally, Ryan D. Kuster was a knockout Montezuma, with a virile, well-focused bass-baritone. Janna Elesia Critz supplied a taut, well-appointed mezzo for the trousers role of Ramiro, Fernando’s brother. Countertenor Keymon Murrah, as the Aztec general Asprano, ventured surely and powerfully into soprano territory, with a hot-coals core of tone.
Another countertenor, Nicholas Garza, portrayed Fernando. In a low-lying first aria his shifts between chest voice and falsetto were rather blatant, but he really warmed up vocally for fine singing in the second act. The second act also found mezzo Hannah Ceniseros, as Montezuma’s wife Mitrena, and soprano Jendi Tarde, as Montezuma’s daughter Teutile, in more consistent voice, but neither was quite compelling.
Formerly classical music critic of The Dallas Morning News, Scott Cantrell continues covering the beat as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The News is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The News makes all editorial decisions.