Dallas — For roughly 250 years, Antonio Vivaldi’s Montezuma languished in opera limbo after being thought to be lost shortly after its 1733 premiere. While its libretto, written by Alvise Giusti, had survived throughout history, it wasn’t until 2002 that the majority of the accompanying score was discovered in archives in Berlin. Since then, interpretations of Vivaldi’s lost work have manifested in the form of opera concerts, classical recordings, and fully staged productions.
As a part of their 2018-2019 season, titled “Myths and Legends,” the American Baroque Opera Company performed Montezuma this weekend at Arts Mission Oak Cliff. Now in their second season, this work proved to be one of their greatest triumphs, with stellar musical and dramatic performances delivered by the entire cast.
It is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the 16th century Aztec emperor, for whom the opera is titled, and the conquering of Mexico by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, here known as Fernando. At the center of the drama is the proverbial love story between mismatched lovers Teutile, the daughter of Montezuma, and Ramiro, a Spanish soldier and Fernando’s brother.
Vivaldi’s distinguished musical treatment is evident throughout, despite much of the composition being “pasticcio”—a union of Vivaldi’s original work with reconstructions of fragments by musical scholars to fill in the missing gaps. It is virtually impossible to discern where Vivaldi’s music ends and the supplementing components begin, as a bright and clever air of The Four Seasons rings seamlessly from start to finish. What’s more, Vivaldi’s demanding score never lets up, calling for a virtuosic aesthetic that is well met by the whole ensemble. Energetic coloratura is met by bright string passages, augmented with natural horn and trumpet.
Ryan Kuster’s focused bass-baritone offered the title role a surprising lift. He navigates the quick-tempered character with a tone that is weighted with authority, but effectively agile. As his wife, the noble and proud Mitrena, mezzo-soprano Hannah Ceniseros proved herself as a versatile and adept musician. Her “S’impugni la spada” near the end of Act I was dramatically engaged, receiving calls of “Brava!” from the audience at Saturday night’s performance. Portraying their ill-fortuned daughter Teutile, ABOC regular Jendi Tarde continued to impress with a bold and expressive characterization that dominated the stage. As a dramatic stand-out, her clear soprano rang with silk at its center and a palpable amount of pathos. Playing opposite her was mezzo Janna Elesia Critz, whose Ramiro was warm and light.
In the role of Fernando, countertenor Nicholas Garza demonstrated an effective command over multiple registers of his instrument. He navigated Vivaldi’s dynamic leaps with athleticism and accuracy, melding together his chest and head voices to produce a sound that was warm at the top and edged at the bottom.
The vocal standout in this production was countertenor Keymon Murrah. Often reserved as a soprano role, his rendition of the Mexican army general, Aspano, was astounding—equal in both technical prowess and drama. His tone moves comfortably high above the staff, with rounded high C’s and a rapid coloratura that demanded frequent praise from the audience. His interpretation of “Dal timor, dallo spavento” was shaded with a lovely darkness that appropriately countered the bright strings with long, emotive lines and rounded shaping.
Under the leadership of artistic director Eric Smith, the troupe spoke in a language that was truly Vivaldian at its core. As is customary, the orchestra maintained historic authenticity on period instruments with well-informed performance practice. The vocalists, each in their own right, commanded the roles with awareness and thoughtfulness—full of the bright, Baroque edge that distinguishes Vivaldi as one of the greats of his time. That, coupled with brilliantly ornate costuming by designer Arturo Hernandez, made this production veritably one of the ABOC’s best yet.