Moctezuma and his opera inventions

In 1492, the kingdom of Castile and Leon was experiencing one of the most fascinating moments in European history, which would soon become a central episode in universal history. Among other things, kings Isabel and Fernando had not only achieved the re-conquest of Granada and the subsequent unification of the Iberian Peninsula, but also sponsored the merchant maritime voyages that led to the fortuitous discovery that would change the history of mankind: the discovery of the continent they would call “America”.

Almost five hundred years later, José Gaos, the illustrious Spanish expatriate, proposed in his lectures in Mexico to refer, rather than to the “discovery” of America, to its “finding”; or even, following Edmundo O’Gorman’s proposal, to its “invention”, as Utopia. Alfonso Reyes had anticipated the idea of the “omen” on that October 12th.

The mutual encounter between continents glimpsed the first globalization, and with it came the split between the ancient and modern worlds. From 1454, Gutenberg’s movable type printing press contributed to the revolution in knowledge that, among other things, laid the foundations for the development of the new science, which makes use of written references and transcends the old oral tradition. Little by little, various translations of cultured texts, written mainly in Latin, would slowly flood the European market and promote the dissemination of ideas that would bring about far-reaching changes in society. Travel was indispensable for the governments of the West, in order to meet the new paradigm presented in the new economic and political horizon.

In 1519 Cortes had entered Tenochtitlan, which would collapse shortly before Fernando de Magellan completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. Relations between distant peoples became the emblem of modernity. In 1543, Copernicus finally published the work he had begun in 1506, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in which he demonstrated that the earth was not the center of the universe. Reason took the leading role in history and Humanism transformed the European mentality and art. The Renaissance arose, which vindicated the rational thought of the ancient classics, and later found its exacerbation in the Baroque, with which came the invention of melodrama, which today we call Opera.
The opera genre was invented in Florence by a group of humanists known as the Camerata Fiorentina, to which the musician Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo’s father, belonged. Count Giovanni Bardi (1534-1612), a lover and patron of the arts, encouraged the composer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) to write the melodrama, now lost, which would later be considered the first opera in history, a drama with music, based on the myth of Daphne, premiered in 1597. The idea was to set ancient mythological episodes to music with the aim of encouraging a theatrical form on a level with the ancient Greek theater.

The theme was taken from the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from which was also drawn one of the most frequent themes in the history of opera, that of Orpheus, the daring hero who is not afraid to descend to the underworld to rescue Eurydice, and whose music enchanted the souls of gods and creatures. Thus, the next three operas in the story – the first to survive – were inspired by the Orphic myth and the figure of his beloved. In 1600, Peri (1561-1633) wrote Euridice, whose script was taken up by Caccini (1550-1618) in 1602 for his own version. In 1607, Monteverdi (1567-1643) composed L’Orfeo.
During the 17th century, Spanish coronists sent to Europe astonishing descriptions of the New World, stories that were translated into English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch. Theater and opera found in the Amerindian panorama the exoticism inherent to the Baroque scene. Distant places of the planet proposed colorful stagings.

In 1664, The Indian Queen was premiered at the Royal Theater in London. The tragedy was written by Robert Howard (1626-1698) and John Dryden (1631-1700), and set to music by John Banister, the elder (ca. 1626-1679). The script may have been influenced by The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India, Now Called New Spayne (published in England in 1578 and republished in 1672), which would be the English translation of Francisco López de Gómara’s Historia de las Indias y conquista de México (Espíndola, 2020). Another hypothesis points to the Historia natural y moral de la Yndias, by the Spanish Jesuit Joseph de Acosta (1540-1600), published in 1590 in Seville, and translated into English in 1604 (Máynez, 2014), as a probable main source. The plot presents, believe it or not, Montezuma as a servant of the Incas. Amexia, Montezuma’s mother, holds the Mexica throne, which is taken from her by the Indian Queen. At the end of the plot, Montezuma falls in love with Orazia, the princess of the Incas. In this understanding, the capitals of both kingdoms would be consolidated under the command of the new Mexica emperor. The English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed the music for a second version of The Indian Queen, premiered in 1695 at the Theatre Royal in London, and announced as Semi Opera. Purcell died on the verge of finishing the music for this script, which was completed by his brother Daniel (1664-1717).

Later, Dryden continued the saga on his own with The Indian Emperor, or the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, which also had two musicalizations, one in 1675, by Humphrey Pelham (1647-1674), and the second in 1691, by Henry Purcell (Pisani, 2005). In this second part, Montezuma is forced to choose Almeria, daughter of the Indian Queen, protagonist of the first tragedy, as his partner. In order to regain the power that belonged to her mother, the young Almeria seeks to dominate Montezuma. Cortés -Cortez in the drama-, is presented by Dryden as a noble, just and honorable man.

While the English translation of the stories by López de Gómara (1511-1566) gave rise to a new English dramatic tradition about ancient Mexico, the translation into Tuscan of the stories by Antonio de Solís y Rivadeneyra (1610-1686) would in turn inaugurate the Italian tradition. Solís, educated at the University of Salamanca, wrote Historia de la conquista de México, población y progresos de la América septentrional, known as Nueva España (History of the conquest of Mexico, population and progress of northern America, known as New Spain). The work appeared in Spain in 1684 and was based on the letters of Cortés, the stories of López de Gómara, and the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain) by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496-1584).

In 1690, the opera Colombo overo l’India scoperta (“Columbus, or India discovered”) with music by Bernardo Pasquini (1673-1710) and script by Venetian Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667-1740), who, by the way, met Antonio Vivaldi when the composer was ordained in Rome as a priest, was premiered at the Teatro Tordinona in Rome (Espíndola, 2020).
It is noteworthy that figures such as Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés represented the new daredevil character who overcame the monstrosity of the unknown ocean and, like Orpheus, had managed to return.