Fernand Cortez, Opera by G. Spontini
Fernand Cortez, ou La conquête du Mexique (Hernán Cortés, or The Conquest of Mexico) was Gaspare Spontini’s second French grand opera, and it was commissioned by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Its larger-than-life stage production, complete with highly choreographed ballet sequences, and wall-of-sound compositional character remain unparalleled in the operatic world, and guests of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence will have the exquisite pleasure of witnessing a true spectacle of music, melodrama, and stage action.
After the success of his previous opera, La vestale, Spontini was an up-and-coming name in musical circles in Paris. At the same time, Napoleon was planning his military campaign against Spain and thought a high-profile opera could do wonders for the French people’s morale and dedication to their Emperor. The two men met and settled the new opera’s topic on the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, also a charismatic military leader who took control of the native Aztec population in the sixteenth century.
To fully develop Fernand Cortez, Spontini enlisted librettists Etienne de Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse Esménard. By detailing a noble military man’s crusade to liberate a local population from its oppressive pagan leaders, the creative team drew a direct parallel to Napoleon’s own plan to vanquish Spain and free it from the backward religious dogmatism of its Inquisition. Although it was hatched as a fairly transparent propaganda piece, Fernand Cortez greatly outperformed its initial purpose and soon attained a life of its own.
Debuting on 28 November 1809 at the Paris Opera, Fernand Cortez was grander than any French grand opera before or since. Spontini’s powerful, full harmonies came blasting one after the other, his double choruses and extended ensembles made even the coldest hearts beat faster with patriotic zeal, and the extensive choreography left audiences amazed with its complicated dance routines and no less than seventeen live horses on the theatre’s stage.
The loud and pompous military scenes alternated with moments of quiet melodrama thanks to the budding love story between Cortés and the indigenous girl Amazily. Thus, Fernand Cortez delivered both a fantastic show and a touching personal story that guaranteed it lasting popular success. If you have the chance to visit Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, you will get a glimpse of how empires are built and grown.