- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer : Gaspare Spontini
- Libretto : Étienne de Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse Esménard, after Alexis Piron’s play
- First peformed : Opéra de Paris [Académie Impériale de Musique] (salle Montansier), Paris, 28 November 1809, conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey. Revised 1817, 1824, 1832, 1838.
SETTING : Mexico, early 16th century
CHARACTERS : FERNAND CORTEZ (haut-contre), Conquistador, Spanish général ; AMAZILY, Mexican princess (soprano) ; TÉLASCO, her brother, cacique of the Ottonis, Montezuma’s nephew (taille = baritone); ALVAR, Cortez’s brother (haute-contre tenor); LE GRAND-PRÊTRE DES MEXICAINS [High Priest] (bass); MORALÈS, friend and confident to Cortez (bass)
1817 version only: MONTÉZUMA, king of Mexico
ORIGINAL CAST: Étienne Lainez as Fernand Cortez; Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu as Amazily; François Lays as Télasco; Laforêt as Alvar; Henri-Étienne Dérivis as the High Priest; Jean-Honoré Bertin as Moralèz
A doctor decided to cure his profoundly deaf patient by taking him to see Fernand Cortez. The doctor’s unorthodox treatment succeeded. At the end of the opera, the man could hear – but the doctor had lost all his hearing, his eardrums battered by a sonic assault.
The joke, of course, is that Fernand Cortez was the noisiest, most bombastic thing ever put on a stage up till then: three hours of marches and massed bands, choruses on-stage and off-stage, cavalry charges and exploding ships.
Napoleon commissioned the opera as a propaganda piece to drum up support for his campaign in Spain in 1808. For the conquistador Cortez, ending the bloodthirsty cult of the Aztec god Talepulchra (Tezcatlipoca), read Napoleon, liberating the Spanish from the Inquisition.
The production was enormously expensive. An unprecedented 180,000 francs were spent on the opera: 10,500 alone on harnesses and costumes for 17 horses and their riders. The massive orchestra bristled with Mexican and military instruments, including timpani, bass drums, tambourines, cymbals, triangles, tam-tams, and the Mexican gourd rattle (ajatazily). The designers Cicéri and Degotti studied Mexican plants and animals, and Aztec costumes and weapons.
In less than a month, Raoul-Rochette notes, the opera had become the most popular at the theatre; it united a melody sweet and fierce, tender and passionate, always new and original, with effects never heard before: crescendos, daring harmonies, opera’s first a cappella trio. It set the seal on Spontini’s reputation after the triumph of La Vestale, Fétis noted, and gave him an authority over the Opéra’s future that lasted for many years.
And it was pulled after a handful of performances – partly because the French were against the brutal Spanish campaign and sympathized with the Aztecs, partly because the triumphalist presentation no longer suited Napoleonic propaganda. Spontini, according to Raoul-Rochette, had painted the Spanish hero in too magnificent colours. The opera-going Parisians admired these devout patriots, exalted in their faith, proudly braving danger and death, at the same time that their descendants, led by warrior monks, fought the French armies. “Fernand Cortez had become a political misinterpretation and almost a public danger.” And so Napoleon cancelled the work he had commissioned.
Spontini’s librettists themselves had misgivings about the work. Étienne de Jouy tried to make the audience pity the fate of the Spanish prisoners – condemned to be sacrificed on the god’s altar – to soften the odious aspects of their victory later on. (Even in 1809, colonialism was not ipso facto a good thing.) “Between the sympathy inspired by the conquerors’ temerity and audacity, and that felt for the miserable fate of the conquered, the soul remains uncertain – and, as it were, suspended.”
The first modern revival of the original version took place in Florence in 2019, with Dario Schmunck in the title role, conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud. While laudable, the singing and French pronunciation are erratic, and the choruses unclear.
Spontini revised the opera for a revival in 1817. Act II became Act I, and Act I became Act II; some numbers were cut, others were rewritten. The work was even more successful than it had been eight years before: in Fétis’s words, a true ovation for the composer. Minor revisions were made for performances in 1824 and 1832 (both Berlin), and 1838 (Paris). The listener is most likely to be familiar with these, and it is the 1817 version we will discuss.
Act I (originally Act II) opens in the courtyard of the great temple of Mexico, lit by torches during a stormy night. The Aztecs have captured Cortez’s brother Alvar and other Spaniards, and intend to sacrifice them to their god of evil. The Introduction (No. 1) contains the prisoners’ exquisite lament, ‘Champs de l’Ibérie’. The Mexicans take the Spanish prisoners into the temple, and the people abandon themselves to a ferocious joy; the chorus (No. 2: ‘Déchirez, frappez les victimes’) is appropriately “wild and warlike”, full of exotic tamtams and tambourines. Alvar and his men resolve to die bravely; their Trio hymne (No. 3: ‘Créateur de ce nouveau monde’) was the first unaccompanied trio in opera, a beautiful adagio number. The Aztecs resprise their chorus (No. 4) and “barbaric” dance.
Montézuma and his nephew Télasco appear; Montézuma calls a halt to the sacrifice: he wants Cortez’s brother as a hostage. The princess Amazily enters; she warns them that Cortez is on his way; if his brother dies, Mexico is doomed. She reveals that she loves Cortez, and has converted to Christianity. Her aria (No. 5: ‘Dieu terrible, prêtre jaloux’) makes little impression. Her larghetto duo with Télasco (No. 6 : ‘Dieu de Mexique, dieu vengeur’) ends in a rather jolly allegro. The people enter in great alarm: thunder has struck the idol, smashing it and setting it on fire. Amazily leaves to implore Cortez for a truce, while the Aztec warriors swear vengeance. The act ends with a Quartetto, choeur et final (No. 7: ‘Ô mon Roi, compte sur mon zèle’); the quartet is workmanlike, but the finale ends in a broad and impressive marchlike melody.
Act II (originally Act I) is set in the imperial pavilion in the Spanish camp. This middle act is much weaker than the opening: a desert of bombast and ballet. It begins with the revolt of the Spaniards, tired of war and longing for home; the scene contains an allegro (No. 1: ‘Quittons ces bords’) and a presto chorus (No. 2: ‘Nous redoutons le plus funeste sort’). Amazily’s andantino / allegretto aria (No. 4: ‘Hélas! Elle n’est plus’) is rather dull; Amazily is a thankless role. The Mexicans enter (No. 4: Marche), while Cortez and Amazily express their surprise in a proto-Meyerbeerian duet, with its overlapping repeated phrases, one of the more attractive pieces in the score.
There follows a lengthy ballet sequence (Nos. 6–9) – twice as long in the original – interrupted by the Spanish cavalry and infantry in revolt (No. 11, reprising No. 1). Cortez reproaches his men, and shames them into obedience (No. 12: Air, duo et choeur: ‘Trahissez un si beau destin’); Cortez’s aria is hectoring, and the oath scene pure bombast. Cortez has given the signal to set fire to his ships; they explode, forcing the Spaniards to die or conquer. The act ends with a ghastly march aria (No. 13: ‘Suivez-moi Castillans, marches troupe invincible’). Berlioz, though, found the scene of the revolt immortal: not even Gluck himself had written recitative as proud or vehement as Cortez’s address to his troops; while all was coloured like the flora of the tropics, irresistibly inspired and burningly sublime.
Act III opens in the entry of a vast monument that serves as sepulture to the Mexican kings and their families. Cortez, led by Amazily, has come to rescue his brother – although the Aztec oracle now demands Amazily’s life in exchange for Alvar’s. The first number is yet another march, this one a chorus of Spaniards (No. 1: ‘Pour enflamer notre audance guerrière’). The act also includes Télasco’s attractive if conventional aria (No. 2: ‘Ô patrie, ô lieux pleins de charmes’); Amazily’s aria (No. 3: ‘Arbitre de ma destinée); a trio, chorus and dance (No. 4: ‘Ô doux moment, ô sort prospère’); and a duet (No. 5: ‘Un espoir me reste / Un instant nous reste’). None are particularly memorable or dramatic.
The scene changes to the palace vestibule. Montezuma orders his soldiers to set fire to the city, and releases Alvar and the prisoners. They stay to defend the Aztec king, who protected them from sacrifice. A Marche triomphale (No. 6) heralds the arrival of the Spaniards. Although Montezuma awaits death without fear, Cortez offers him peace instead. Montezuma cedes to his virtues, and gives him Amazily as prize for his valour. The finale (No. 7: ‘Ô jour de gloire et d’espérance’) is a dance and general chorus of the two nations – a strangely pointless and historically false ending.
Berlioz admired the work throughout his life. “Cortez was given at the Opéra,” he wrote to Spontini. “Still shattered by the terrible effect of the mutiny scene, I come to shout to you: Glory! Glory! Glory and respect to the man whose powerful thought, heated by his heart, created this immortal scene! In any production of art, did indignation ever find such accents? Was warlike enthusiasm more ardent and more poetic? Has anyone ever shown in such a light, painted with such colours audacity and will, those proud daughters of genius? – No! … It’s beautiful, it’s true, it’s new, it’s sublime!”
He may have had this scene in mind when he composed the thrilling but militaristic Act III finale to Les Troyens. In 1843, he wrote that the score was rich in fresh melodies, beautiful recitatives, original, noble, and elevated ideas, always dramatic, and orchestrated, if not with great finesse, at least with an unchanging rightness of expression. In 1863, he still regarded it as a masterpiece. “There are musical combinations whose boldness and novelty many living musicians, who believe themselves to be progressing, are far from having dreamed of. [Wagner, one presumes?] One finds there melodies of admirable nobility, strikingly audacious modulations, an instrumentation of a richness and variety which astonish all the more, knowing in what state this branch of the art languished in 1810.”
Critics both then and now have been less impressed. Blaze de Bury thought it vastly inferior to La vestale, which he considered an old-fashioned, pompous work. David Charlton calls it “a Napoleonic juggernaut rolling with unique and repellent power, bludgeoning the listener”, while Richard Wrigley termed it “an extraordinarily expensive, overtly militaristic, bombastic and colonial opera”. Edward J. Dent found it “little more than a string of military marches, interspersed with a few dances in the polonaise style”.
The plot is opaque and poorly constructed. (Witness the ease with which the first two acts could be swapped.) Nor are the characters at all sympathetic. Fernand Cortez and his imperial ambitions, his exhortations to triumph and conquer, are unpalatable today; Amazily is dreary; and Montezuma a noble savage. The Aztecs were a cruel, bloodthirsty lot; so were the conquistadors. There’s little to choose between them.
The work is most interesting as a model for grand opera: an exotic, historical setting; conflict between two groups; a love affair crossing those cultures; a heroine who converts to her lover’s religion; a bass priest antagonist; a larger role for the chorus; public ceremonies; rallying troops; sensational special effects; and copious ballet. Many of these elements occur in de Jouy’s libretto for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, who, like Meyerbeer and Berlioz, learnt from Spontini’s grasp of musical space and use of immense choral and orchestral forces.
For all its innovation and impressive spectacle, though, the opera’s cardboard characters and glorification of military conquest make it hard to love. Like an Aztec victim on the altar of Tezcatlipoca, it lacks a heart.
“La Vestale and Fernand Cortez, these two masterpieces,” Adolphe Adam wrote, “should have been the signal for a musical revolution, but this revolution only occurred slowly and after the coming of a messiah to whom Spontini was only the precursor.”
That messiah made his name in Italy, then came to Paris as a master of grand opera. His name? G………… R.
Adolphe Adam, “Spontini”, Le Nouvelliste, 8 February 1851
Hector Berlioz, Les soirées de l’orchestre, 1854.
Henri Blaze de Bury, Musiciens contemporains, 1856.
Edward J. Dent, The Rise of Romantic Opera, ed. Winton Dean, 1976.
M. Escudier, Gaspard Spontini, Figaro, 20 September 1875
Andrew Everett, Josephine’s Composer: The Life, Times and Works of Gaspare Pacifico Luigi Spontini (1774-1851), 2013.
F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
Sarah Hibberd, L”epique en action: Spontini’s Fernand Cortez and the Aesthetic of Spectacle, 2017.
Raoul-Rochette, “Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Spontini”, Académie des Beaux-Arts, 2 October 1852
Richard Wrigley, Art, Theatre, and Opera in Paris, 1770-1850: Exchanges and Tensions, 2014.