Alejo Carpentier, A Drunken Antonio Vivaldi, Motezuma & A MexicanThursday, October 18, 2007
In 1995 when I read Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis's novel ¿En quien piensas cuando haces el amor?, I was perplexed by the mention of a Vivaldi opera called Motezuma. I figured this was simply a sample of Homero Aridjis's brand of Magic Realism. This was not the case. When I interviewed him at his Mexico City home in 1997 he said it was a long lost opera.
He also told me that what was most interesting is that in the premiere in 1773, Vivaldi's mistress Anna Giró had played the lead female part. Aridjis said he had first read about the opera in an Alejo Carpentier novel. When I returned to Vancouver I went on an Alejo Carpentier binge taking out most of his books from the excellent collection at the UBC Library. It was there that I discovered Carpentier's novella Concierto Barroco.
I don't know why but in the middle of the night, last night, and the reason for this blog today, I dreamt of a character (above) I had photographed near the Zócalo (Mexico City's main square) in 1997. I never saw his face as he walked quickly away in his colourful indian clothing. He and a musician I photographed a few blocks away, made me remember my favourite Arijdis poem that conjures the ghosts of people from the past mingling with us. Was that man Moctezuma's ghost? Or could it have been the Grand-Tour-Mexican dressed as Moctezuma (read below) come back to Mexico aftr his binge in Venice?
walk with us
through the back streets
the stares of children
young girls's bodies
cross through them
Weightless and vague
we travel through them
at doorways that no longer are
on bridges that are empty
with the sun on our faces
move toward transparency." Homero Aridjis - Letter From Mexico
Moctezuma was first portrayed on the stage in 1695 in Henry Purcell’s masque The Indian Queen. Purcell got it wrong as Montezuma is seen as a young Inca general in the Peruvian army. Jean Philippe Ramaeu’s lncan setting in Les Indes Galantes is now thought to be the first serious work on the new world set to music. The fact is that two years before, in the autumn of 1733, Antonio Vivaldi premiered his first opera, Motezuma in the Teatro Di Sant’Angelo with a libretto by Alvisi Giusti. Anna Giró, Vivaldi’s supposed mistress, sang the lead female part. A meeting between Vivaldi, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti (who had been seent by his father Alessandro to seek his musical fortune in Venice) during the Christmas carnival in Venice in 1709, by all accounts had no bearing with Vivaldi’s opera Motezuma.
But Cuban born writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), who coined the term lo real maravilloso or “magic realism”, thought otherwise.
In his 1974 short novel Concierto Barroco (the same title in the English translation available at the Vancouver Public Library and at the UBC Library in Spanish) a bored rich Mexican goes on a grand tour of Europe with Filomeno, black Cuban servant who has a fondness for women and trumpets. Bored in Madrid, the Mexican ends up in the Venice carnival in 1709. Dressed as Moctezuma, (his black servant, decides that his face will do as a mask) runs into the composers, all three very drunk, in a dark corner of Victorio Arduino’s Botteghe di Caffe. The idea for the opera is born when Vivaldi questions the Mexican on his costume. That Vivaldi doesn’t get the story quite right (or the name as any Mexican who knows history will tell you it's Moctezuma not Montezuma or Motezuma) could be blamed on his inebriated state.
What follows is one of the most delightful stories I have ever read. An impromptu concert with the composers and Vivaldi’s foundlings ( with the wonderful names, Pierina del violino, Cattarina del cornetto, Guiseppina del chitarrone, etc…..) at the Ospedale della Pieta, leads into a session with Louis Armstrong charming Handel and the Cuban servant with his rendition of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.
It should come as no surprise to those who may have read other books by Carpentier, an eminent music critic and musicologist, that in Concierto Barroco he uses this knowledge to play jokes and twist time, while educating us. The Mexican and the composers have a picnic on Igor Stravinsky’s tomb, who some credit with having said, “Vivaldi wrote the same concerto 600 times.” Thus we find out that Stravinsky is buried In Venice (but did not die there) while another character in the novel, Richard Wagner in a casket, died but is not buried in Venice.
If Concierto Barroco is a literary potato chip that has you wanting more I would recommend Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda wherein Domenico Scarlatti plays the harpsichord in early 18th century Portugal while the novel’s heroes Baltasar and Blimunda build a flying machine.