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.
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 *.
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-.