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Down Mexico Way

March 30, 2009

Courtney Huffman as Teutile in Montezuma
Photo: Christine Cotter/LAT 2009

Long Beach Opera celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday. And in the company’s own plucky style, it did so with plenty of nerve if not the steadiest of hands. The occasion was the first of two performances of Vivaldi’s Montezuma, a Baroque chestnut lost for over two centuries until it was rediscovered in a nearly complete format in 2002. In fact, this was the work’s US premiere and while neither the circumstances nor the setting were ideal for a Baroque opera, there was something ultimately very appropriate about it all. Musical resources were marshaled from Los Angeles’ own Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra who performed under the company’s director Andreas Mitisek. Probably the biggest disappointment of the evening as that this very capable group was placed far at the back of the stage behind all of the action making the sound seem distant and creating real problems for the cast who were unable to see the conductor without the assistance of video monitors which still didn’t quite keep everyone in tempo all the time. Of course Mitisek was also handling all the harpsichord chores so his hands were undoubtedly very full.

Also, in the LBO fashion, just because it’s a special occasion all around and resources are scarce, there was no backing down for director David Schweizer, who went for a provocative concept production anyway. The story is typical Baroque territory – Montezuma, King of the Aztecs, has been defeated by the Spaniards under the leadership of the General Fernando. Montezuma demands his wife and daughter kill themselves in defiance, but they do not. His daughter has fallen in love with Fernando’s brother and soon, Montezuma’s wife is leading a rebellion of her own against the Spanish. Schweizer moves all of the opera's action to a museum exhibit of Aztec artifacts where the attendees at an opening reception are drawn into the roles and events of the story in a dream-like way. It’s not really meant to be a total frame shift, but it does provide for a variety of self-referential tongue and cheek moments. It wasn’t bad looking, and the concept didn’t overwhelm the piece, but the low budget approach did strain things at times. Above all this action was a large video screen used not only for subtitles, but also a video montage of footage from everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to cheesy Hollywood films referencing this same historical period. At times the video appeared to be part of the exhibit, at other times not. But it was well edited and always interesting to look at, sometimes risking outplaying the cast on stage. Of course since only the arias were sung in Italian with newly added recitatives and other dialogue in English, one’s attention was drawn back to the proceedings.

There were some enjoyable performances in the cast – particularly those of Peabody Southwell as the young lover Ramiro and Courtney Huffman as Teutile, his lover and Montezuma’s daughter. In fact, in perhaps the oddest bit of the staging, the pants role of Ramiro was tweaked to imply that the character may, in fact, be a woman and that this relationship is a lesbian one. Their wedding scene was even accompanied by a video image of Lindsay Lohan and reported paramour Samantha Ronson. Huffman vamped about the stage casting Teutile as an impetuous and defiant young woman looking for the spotlight. I was also fond of Caroline Worra’s Asprano, Montezuma’s general. She has a wonderful sequence where she sheds her business attire to don feathers and a quasi-Aztec war garb. It was hysterical in a good way.

Still, despite this, the rest of the cast was not as strong, and there was as much cringe inducing vocalism and not. Still this and the low budget production values did lend an ironic air of authenticity to the whole evening. Vivaldi’s operas were often presented in less than ideal circumstances with the available people and props on hand at the time. In a spirit probably not too dissimilar from LBO’s approach, it was often more about getting the work on stage than anything else. These were not the kind of garrish Baroque fantasies that directors like Copley and Ponelle deal in. LBO's Montezuma is lean if not always mean. This brash if sometimes clumsy evening owes more than might be apparent to its composer and this production is worth it, despite all the shortcomings. There is one more performance on Sudnay April 5th in Santa Monica.



My name is Guy and I have a spare ticket to the Sunday 4/5 4 PM performance of Motezuma at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica. If you are interested in scoring a ticket to this performance, please e-mail ASAP at guy3@roadrunner.com
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