For probably the first time in almost 200 years the 1809 original version of Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortez ou la conquête de Mexique got a theatrical run last October. It was at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in a new edition by Paolo Petazzi where it was recorded for video release. There’s tons to unpack here because few people will be familiar with the work and if they are it will likely be in the very different 1817 version. It’s also a far from straightforward production.
Let’s start with the work and its performance history. In the early 19th century, Europe still basically bought into the version of the conquest of Mexico assiduously created by Cortez. i.e the enlightened Spanish had liberated the locals from the tyranny of a cruel and barbaric theocratic state. Napoleon was just about to set off on his Spanish campaign which he was pitching as a sort of crusade to free Spain from the obscurantism of the Inquisition so a propaganda piece equating Napoleon with Cortez was just the thing and Spontini and his librettists obliged. Well, things didn’t go so well for the French in Spain and in 1812 it was withdrawn from performance. When it reappeared after the Restoration it was drastically altered and rearranged to fit the new politics and in that form; give or take mucking about by Spontini pretty much every time it was performed, it survived to the end of the century before dropping out of the repertoire more or less completely. This Florence recording is an attempt to get back to the original 1809 version.
But that leaves a second problem. In 2020 the notion that the Indigenous people of the Americas were liberated and enlightened by their European colonisers doesn’t sit too well and to present the work in its original form really isn’t a viable option. Director Cecilia Ligorio’s solution is quite ingenious and works quite well. She uses two devices. The first is the ballet of which there is a big chunk at the end of Act 1 and in the finale (this is French grand opera after all). The choreography is used to suggest that all is not quite as the sung version seems. The second device is to give Cortez’ lieutenant Moralez an additional role. He keeps a diary, which at intervals we see projected. In this he conveys his scepticism of Cortez’ motives and his sense of how much Cortez has created his own heroic myth out of the events is conveyed. This allows us to see the rest of the action as Cortez’ version of events rather than as some kind of objective record and, as such, works quite well.
So as the plot unfolds in Act 1 we learn that Cortez and the Aztec princess Amazily are in love much to the disgust of her brother Telasco, the Aztec’s leading military commander. Cortez’ troops are on the verge of mutiny but he inspires them with promises of glory. The Spaniards are all dressed in leather and armour and look rather like lead soldiers being manipulated by Cortez. Then comes the ballet. In the first part the Mexican girls “explore” the Spanish soldiers in an interestingly flirtatious way. Then in come the men dressed as horse-headed Spaniards. It gets dramatically darker. The choreography makes it clear that light hearted flirtation is not what the Spanish intend for the native girls. All of this is done to impress Telasco but he still tries to persuade Cortez that his enterprise his doomed and he should accept Montezuma’s gifts and go home. Cortez’ response is to have his ships burned.
Acts 2 and 3 involve a rather convoluted plot in which Cortez tries to free his brother from Aztec captivity (where he is about to be sacrificed). Amazily offers herself as an alternative victim. Telasco tries to rally a last Aztec resistance while rescuing his sister before Cortez bursts in freeing the prisoners and offering mercy to all which everybody but the High priest accepts. Telasco, bowing to Cortez’ heroic nature, prophesies a new era of partnership and brotherhood. The final ballet rather gives the lie to this as does Moralez who claims that most of what we have seen is nonsense concocted by Cortez to enhance his reputation. It’s quite intriguing but complex and I probably haven’t really done it justice.
Musically this piece is of considerable interest too. It’s well ahead of its time. Bear in mind that this was written a year before Rossini’s first commercial opera. It’s almost through sung and the music is quite densely scored. There are numbers and the arias perhaps cast a look back to the past with lots of repetition but the recitative all gets orchestral accompaniment and there’s a sense of forward propulsion. It’s more like the Berlioz of Les Troyens than Mozart or Rossini. It’s said that Spontini was so impressed by the quality of the Imperial orchestra and chorus that he was driven to write music that he knew could not be performed in an Italian house at that time. It is a bit long and repetitive for the subject matter but that’s something that would dog French opera long after Spontini.
There are some really good performances here too. The standout is Dario Schmunk as Cortez. He has a lovely, ringing, heroic timbre and makes almost too sympathetic a Cortez. Certainly I could see him singing Aeneas in the Berlioz. He’s also totally convincing in character. I really wanted Luca Lombardo as Telasco to match him, because that would have been dramatically brilliant, but though he sings beautifully and accurately and acts really well he just doesn’t quite have the same “heroic” quality and sounds just a bit weedy. Alexia Volgaridou is a really good and sympathetic Amazalily. All three of them have tons of extremely demanding music to sing and they do really well. The rest of the cast, the chorus and orchestra are all well up to the job and conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud seems to get what’s required.
The ballet is really critical. It’s brilliantly, sometimes chillingly choreographed by Alessia Maria Romano. The dancers of the Compagnia Nuevo Balleto di Toscana perform her very modern; sometimes flirtatious, sometimes brutal choreography expertly. When it’s incorporated so well into the work and its directorial concept this well ballet can be a real asset to an opera rather than. a foo-foo add on.
And so to the video. This production is often very dark and I can’t imagine what it might look like on DVD. Mud I’m guessing. On Blu-ray it’s good enough and video director Tiziano Mancini does a fine job of capturing a very visually complex production. The sound (stereo and DTS-HD-MA) is absolutely fine. There are really useful interviews with Ligorio and Tingaud on the disk which I really recommend watching before watching the opera. There’s more really useful info in the booklet as well as a synopsis and a track listing. Subtitles are English, French, German, Italian, Korean and Japanese.
I got hold of this disk thinking it would be a historical curiosity but it’s much more than that. It’s an adventurous and dramatically satisfying production of an opera that has some really good music in it. Well worth exploring.