Gaspare Spontini: Fernando Cortez (1817 version in Italian)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.

I was working on a review of Antonio Carlos Gomes’ Fosca when my friend the OperaScribe reviewed this great-granddaddy of grand opera so I could not resist. This is the opera that started it all, and by all I mean bombastic super-nova opera. If Rienzi is a four and half hour apocalyptic battle this is a nuclear explosion. A propaganda piece commissioned by Napoleon, it bears witness to the important role opera, even terrible opera, plays in human history. No one has ever composed a successful opera on the subject of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, this is no exception, but it is an interesting curio just the same. Technically this is actually two operas. The 1809 version has a totally different plot from the 1817 version although the casting and most of the music is almost identical. By two operas I mean two distinct types of music. Much of the opera is placid (usual but not always boring) but then again much of it is also extremely loud. I’m also cheating as this recording is in Italian, but it will more than get the point of the opera across: I hope we all love timpani!

PLOT: Mexico, 1510s. Cortez’ brother Alvaro has been captured but is spared through the intervention of his brother’s lover the Aztec princess Amazily. She is sent to Cortez who burns down his fleet and invades Tenochtitlan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRRE3z4swpI

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The Aztec temple. (51 minutes)

0: The overture * is sweet orchestral bombast but rather melodic if in a sort of Rienzi way.

8: First we have extreme orchestral brooding followed by a rather placid trio ** of Spanish prisoners: including Cortez’ brother Alvaro, bidding farewell to their homeland, and theoretically their lives. They have been taken captive and are being threatened with death by the menacing interjections of the Aztecs. Much of this consists of standard operatic gesturing although it is rather interesting to witness what sounds like a rather well developed dramatic Rossini opera.

15: The first chorus of the Aztecs is the ultimately drum extravaganza *.

20: Yet another trio this time con coro for the Spaniards, this time at prayer, lovely and rather hauntingly a cappella, particularly Alvaro **. After this lovely moment of placid calm we get more more Azteca and then an orchestrally accompanied chorus, providing some schmaltz before being musically punched in the face by the Aztecs. Montezuma does not want to sacrifice the prisoners.

32: Amazily arrives pleading for the prisoners. She is a secret Christian convert and probably rather ironically Cortez’ bit of crumpet at the same time. Her aria * sounds vaguely like something Mozart would write but more jazzy. Something about how her mum was sacrificed to false gods or something.

38: Montezuma sends her and her brother Telasco to Cortez to sue for peace, leading to a good trio *.

49: The Aztecs return and there is the send off for Amazily *.

ACT 2: The Spanish camp. (49 minutes)

2: The first chorus of the Spaniards * complaining about how tired they are of the expedition is bookended by Cortez and Morales discussing the army’s lack of continued interest.

13: Amazily arrives and with her comes a long patch of recitative which turns eventually into an aria for her with interjections from Cortez *. The recitative before this number seems to have some interesting harmonizations.

17: Some thing resembling a duet with Cortez starts here with bells jingling away *.

21: A choral march from the Aztecs as their prince arrives *. Telasco tells Cortez that if he and the Spanish leave Alvaro will be released.

28: A dance followed by a female chorus *. It gets better as it skits about; the four part ballet would be here.

33: Another patch of bombast as the Spanish are roused by the sight of smoke. Cortez returns ** and tells his men that he has just set fire to the ships, they all have to lay siege to Tenochtitlan.

45: Fiery explosion brings about the third false finale of the act and brings on the actual finale ** complete with bells.

ACT 3: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: The subterranean tomb of the Aztec kings.

2, 11: After a brief chorus which tricked me into thinking I was still in act 2 we get an oddly lilting aria from Telasco ** completely with French horn schmaltz. There is then a long recitative in which Telasco, Cortez, and later Amazily interact leading to another aria for our prima donna *.

17: There is then another chorus with bells ** and more interaction, this time between Amazily, Cortez, and Morales which climaxes well.

22: A love duet between Amazily and Cortez **.

25: Amazily’s prayer to her dead mother *.

Scene 2: Montezuma’s throne room.

30, 34: Brief furious music assists the change of scenery, Montezuma has Alvaro brought in (remember him?). The king awaits only death, which Amazily refutes. Then there is a triumphal march *. Cortez arrives and tells Montezuma that he wants peace between them and then the opera ends with a happy choral dance *.

COMMENTS:

For an opera that I prefaced as a “nuclear explosion” this is rather dull. Yes there are some ear splitting moments, but most of the opera consists of string chamber music that makes Iphigenie en Tauride seem pulsating with excitement. That is not to say that the score is worthless. There is much of merit here. The first act makes a good case for the comparatively minor tenor role of Alvaro by alternating in the first twenty minutes of singing between some of the best music in the entire opera and bombastic Aztec chorusing. One gets the impression that it is Alvaro and not Fernando that is the more important role, certainly Alvaro’s vocal lines are prettier than his brother’s, and he must be one of the best tenor cameo roles in opera. Amazily does not seem to have inspired Spontini at all. Her music is not so much dull and boring as awkwardly standard pre-bel canto fare and as the only female character of consequence this is rather a shame. Although she does emote for a while about her mother, she is defined by her relationships with the male characters and unlike, say, Odabella in Verdi’s Attila, Amazily is no Amazon! The story is also very brief, and there is little padding hiding this. I get the impression that Verdi could have written a score to the same libretto and shaved off at least 45 minutes from this thing. Is there a reason why the first act is nearly an hour? What is actually happening? Other than the awesome tenor part I wish I could sing do I even care? The second act fares only slightly better, mostly because of the finale which is good but by no means great. The first half of the act is probably the worst part of the entire opera. The third act starts well but ends up blunted towards the end with the finale bordering on kitsch but I’ll be nice and just leave it by saying that it seems oddly rushed. Alvaro does come back in the final scene, but mostly for one liners, so there appears to be nothing left for Spontini to gain from him or anyone else. The protracted length of the opera in comparison to what actually happens action-wise leaves it with the same impression as a David Lean film, but Ryan’s Daughter and not, unfortunately, Doctor Zhivago. Overall one can tell that there is something good here, it is proto-grand opera with all the basic features in embryonic form, but it is a rough draft, not a polished copy.  B-.

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7 thoughts on “Gaspare Spontini: Fernando Cortez (1817 version in Italian)

  1. Snap!

    I’ve been meaning to comment, but have been getting back LATE – a journalist’s life!

    “Nuclear explosion”. Nice!

    No, it’s not exactly great, is it? (Not so much nuclear explosion as a bomb?)

    I wasn’t too taken with La vestale either; it’s an opera that lacks fire (so to speak).

    I’m going to tackle Olympie next; I’ve heard it in Rhorer’s recording, and it’s, at least musically, the best Spontini by a long chalk – possibly because so much of it sounds like Rossini! There’s also one passage which is a variation on the Don Giovanni finale I.

    Iphigénie *doesn’t* pulse with excitement? (I love it, but admit that Gluck’s an acquired taste.)

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    1. I think I will leave the rest of Spontini to you, I had Cortez on my short list for about a year so I finally reviewed it but I think I’ll go back to my Gomes series. I’ve been meaning to review Gounod’s Sapho since August but the birthing process seems to be impossible for some reason and I’m stuck in act 2, maybe it is just too similar to Gluck! Speaking of Gluck, I do actually like Iphigenie en Tauride, especially since it is one of the few operas in existence where the primary relationship is not romantic but fraternal. I just use it as a joke mechanism because of how it borders between opera seria and what we would know as more modern opera. You are very right about Fernand Cortez not sounding like Meyerbeer. Meyerbeer has a distinctive sound universe, sometimes he almost imitates Mozart but other moments can sound as advanced as Verdi’s Otello. Ironically I think I understand why Spontini combined bombast with chamber music in Fernand Cortez, they do compliment each other even if neither ends up working well. Ironically when he does neither we get the best music in the opera!

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      1. Mmm! I liked Salvator Rosa. There are videos of Maria Tudor, Guarany, and Schiavo on YouTube.

        Sapho has a wonderful aria, but, like most of Gounod’s operas, lacks drama. Berlioz, of course, loved it! Faust was the first opera I saw live, and I loved it; I didn’t realise at the time, though, that opera would become the obsession it did! Listening to all of Gounod’s recorded operas was depressing; unlike Massenet, who ended firmly in my top five the more of his I listened to, Gounod went down in my estimation. Beautiful melodies, but, as Verdi thought, not much sense of drama. Of course, several need better recordings, with a Francophone cast!

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  2. I wish I knew where to get Salvator Rosa, there doesn’t seem to be a recording available on the internet at all and so I will probably never review it. Obviously I’ve already reviewed Maria Tudor, and I was thinking about maybe yet another Ponchielli? I’ve heard Sapho before but I have to agree with you about Gounod, he seemed to lack dramatic cohesion. Faust has some wonderful moments, comes to mind, but it is a sprawling and episodic work (entire scenes or even acts can be omitted without harming the narrative flow) and by act five we end up with a good ballet (rumoured to have been composed by Leo Delibes) which however pauses the narrative and then the epilogue-esque prison scene. I think Cinq-Mars probably comes closest to be a cohesive drama, but it too has a dreadful ballet pantomime and Gounod also appears to have been mixing genres with it (is it grand opera or opera comique, does anyone know?). Verdi would have done a better job with Cinq-Mars than Gounod. Ironically Wagner liked Gounod, his reasons though are rather ambiguous. I suppose because they both wrote rambling incoherent melodramas? But Wagner at least has the excuse of using heavy loads of philosophy in his works, I must concede this even if I do find philosophy in opera to be trying at best, whereas Gounod has never been seen as intellectual by anyone. Any way, since you specialize in French opera and I don’t, what is your impression of Delibes’ Lakme? Sir Denis Forman did not like it but I am rather fond of it even if it does border on kitsch. I will be posting on La Boheme next.

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  3. Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F33PvnPkqM&list=PLKfeuh2eZH86bNTE9MvNJPBJ8qTMMTEDw

    I love Faust! it’s a fantastic blend of the supernatural and the comic, and every piece is a winner. And Goethe’s drama itself is fairly sprawling.

    Cinq-Mars began as a historical opéra comique historique, with spoken dialogue, and became a full-scale grand opéra “à la manière sérieux de Meyerbeer”, with sung recitatives and expanded numbers.
    I wish this production was available on DVD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=At5BI0uxSvE

    Here’s a piece (1905) describing Gounod & Wagner’s views of each other. (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19050902.2.27)

    Interesting reading – Gounod saw Wagner as a dramatist who used music, but not as a musician pure and simple. And Wagner called Gounod “an artist of very amiable exterior and honest intentions, but quite destitute of any superior talent”, and “a man of tender heart, good and pure, but by no means profoundly gifted”. Nice bloke, shame about the music!
    “continuous symphony” – yes! And I like the point about moving from Aeschylus to Euripides. I suppose a parallel might be:
    Aeschylus ==> Wagner
    Euripides => Verdi (naturalistic melodrama, complex characters, irony, interested in human passions)
    Aristophanes ==> Offenbach, G&S
    Not sure about Sophocles; possibly Mussorgsky?

    Forman doesn’t much like French music – he’s scathing about Massenet and Meyerbeer – so I’d take his opinion of Delibes with a cupful of salt! Lakmé is a “light” opera – it’s an opéra comique with a sad ending – but it works really well onstage. I saw it in Sydney a decade ago with my folks, and my mother loved it. The production’s on Bluray; trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gwchtxfvxQ It has lots of good music, starting with the O DOUR GA !!! phrase in the prelude.

    What do you think of Saint-Saens? I know you were bored by Samson & Dalila. He’s decidedly second (or even third-rate) compared to Gounod. Problem might be that the guy was simply too smart; a polymath – scientist, philosopher, classicist, &c – but he might lack the directness and theatrical sense of any of the Italians; his music too often seems competent without being inspired. I’ve listened to eight of his operas, and like only Henry VIII and Samson.

    Are you going to review Lohengrin? That’s one Forman didn’t include!

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    1. Actually Forman did review Lohengrin in “The Good Wagner Opera Guide”, where he covers every opera Wagner completed from Die Feen to Parsifal. His impression seemed to be somewhat ambiguous: there are 14 starred items, 5 one and 9 two star items, several others that are given timer notation but no star values, and at the end no letter grade but from my reading I would think it is an implied B. The Prelude, like that of Parsifal, gets no star so at 25 minutes Elsa’s Dream is the first item but it comes in strongly with ** as does Lohengrin’s arrival. It bogs down from there but he gives two one stars to the Forbidden Question motif and the prayer. He finds the first act finale stilted but successful, the fight fails though. The first half of act 2 fares better, particularly Ortrude’s and Elsa’s music but the second half gets two one star items (including Elsa’s march to the church). In act 3, again the first half gets 3 two-star items in succession (the prelude, wedding march, and the love duet) but the second scene gets only two timer notations (this includes the Grail Narration). It seems slightly rushed as the timer notations do not always match the star ratings and at least two of the star ratings don’t have a timer notation but the commentary Sir Denis provides is rather detailed and seven pages long.

      Regarding the blog, when I started I vowed to never review a Wagner opera. I certainly mention Wagner here freely, but there will never be an entry for any Wagner opera on this site. Unless an opera is radically transformed like Simon Boccanegra, if Forman reviewed it, I won’t touch it here.

      I do have some more Saint-Saens in the works! I’ve been listening to his non-operatic music for years and I love all of it and I really love the Bacchanal from Samson so his problem seems to be composing for the human voice rather than anything else although Dalila does get one winner! It is possible that Henry VIII is actually his best opera, but it is also over 3 hours long in comparison to the 2 hours of Samson et Dalila, guess which one gets performed more often? Expect Henry VIII to appear on this site eventually, it is on my short list and I’ve already started it.

      I may just dislike the Faust legend rather than Gounod’s score in particular. After all I’m not that keen with Berlioz or Boito’s take on it either.

      Regarding Lakme (I own 3 recordings of it), I find it so endearing and elegant but I will half-concede to Forman that it is in a genre of its own and to some extent defies the standard definition of what an opera is “supposed” to be. There is no other opera I can think of that is like it, but if you know of one I would love to hear it! I have Delibes’ Le roi l’a dit, but it is night and day compared to Lakme.

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