Antonio Vivaldi’s three-act opera seria Motezuma was created in Venice in 1733 (months after Handel’s extraordinary Orlando in London) but was thought lost until a manuscript turned up in Germany in 2002. The story is a romanticized and fanciful adaptation of the destruction of Motezuma’s Aztec empire in Mexico by the Spanish armies of Fernando Cortés in the early 16th century. In the opera, all ends on an optimistic note with the marriage of Motezuma’s daughter Teutile to Cortés’ brother Ramiro.

Ensemble Caprice
Ensemble Caprice

This performance, staged by the ever-enterprising Ensemble Caprice as part of the Festival de musique Montréal Baroque, not only represented the work’s Montreal première but also “inaugurated” a new performing space, the Théâtre Saint-James in historic Old Montreal. In fact, the theatre is the refurbished main lobby of a former bank, with its huge high-domed ceiling and stone and cement walls having remained largely intact. There were the usual and expected teething problems: amenities were rather less than basic and the performance started 25 minutes late. (En passant, memo to the organisers; the uncomfortable plastic chairs provided for the audience members that packed the hall simply will not do.)

Ensemble Caprice under its founding artistic director Matthias Maute has become one of Canada’s most accomplished, imaginative and versatile Baroque groups, and this ambitious project demonstrated many of the ensemble’s considerable virtues. Maute had prepared his imposing instrumental group in his customary meticulous and scrupulous manner, while his internal pacing of an admittedly difficult work was as memorable as his conducting was a consolidating and positive element of the performance. Period performing practices were fully respected and ensemble playing was refreshingly unified, and though overall balance favoured the excellent woodwinds and brass, the string articulation was never less than adequate. Above all, the instrumental performance had tremendous rhythmic energy as well as the required dramatic contrasts.

Several artistic choices were, however, more debatable. The performance was “enhanced” by a series of off-white images of vegetation and Aztec masks that were projected onto the large west wall of the former bank. Their purpose was puzzling and often distracting; their arbitrary nature created neither a semblance of décor nor added any underlying atmosphere or any psychological dimension to the performance. Maute had also decided to replace the opera’s numerous recitatives with a narration supplied by an actor portraying Motezuma. Not only was the text largely insipid and ungainly but it was provided only in English (Montreal is a largely Francophone city, after all). In addition, the theatre’s booming acoustics ensured that large parts of the text either lacked clarity or were over-projected.

In addition to Vivaldi’s melodic and instrumental genius, Motezuma demonstrated the composer’s layered sense of dramatic development. Vivaldi abided by Baroque opera’s conventional use of the aria as the genre’s privileged form (the score includes more than 20 arias as well as a couple of choruses and a dramatically effective trio, “A battaglia, a battaglia”). The genre’s full range of arias were on display, from General Asprano’s feverish “aria di tempesta”, “Nell’aspre sue vicende”, to Teutile’s haunting “aria di spianato”, “L’agonie dell’alma afflitta”. To perform the daunting vocal score, Maute had recruited a band of young singers, several of whom are members of L’Opéra de Montréal’s young artists program, L’Atelier lyrique.

Maute was minimalist in his approach to ornamentation and use of vibrato for his singers, but his young charges’ major battle was not against Vivaldi’s vocal demands but against the hall’s impossible acoustics. For most of the evening, vocal definition and expression, as well as any attempted dynamic contrasts, disappeared upwards into the bank’s vaulted ceiling. For the audience, bathed as it was in the reverberating wash of sound that resulted, vocal focus and precision had to be imagined rather than experienced and any florid, coloratura passages (of which there are many) emerged in ill-defined clusters. Yet, the young singers never abdicated. The largely uniform cast was dominated by the two sopranos, most notably the strikingly beautiful and talented Florie Valiquette as Teutile, who managed to convey real pathos and dramatic expression through the musicality, sheer beauty and technical assurance of her singing. The high coloratura soprano Suzanne Rigden too, as General Asprano, adapted her voice to the prevailing conditions to fine effect. The men in the cast, bass-baritone Tomislav Lavoie (Motezuma) and tenor Jean-Michel Richer (Cortés), were less successful but displayed admirable conviction and implication.

Yet in the end one felt that this Motezuma had not lost the battle to the invading Spanish, but to the invasive acoustics of the hall.