Newly Digitized: Spontini’s Fernand Cortez, in 2 versions

Nearly two years ago, I shared a vocal score of Gaspare Spontini’s propagandistic Napoleonic-era opera Fernand Cortez (1809), a precursor of Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and the heights of 19th century grand opera. Joining it now are two other editions of the opera. The first is a full score of the original 1809 version, to a libretto by Joseph-Alphonse d’Esmenard and Etienne de Jouy. Premiered at the height of the Peninsular War, the opera portrays Cortez (or Napoleon) as enlightened hero, versus the savage Aztec (or Spanish) priests. The production was not an unqualified success, and despite its grand spectacle – in addition to dramatic, militaristic choruses and elaborate ballet sequences, a fully-staged production requires a number of live horses and includes a scene in which Cortez burns his own fleet – it was withdrawn after only a handful of performances.

[Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique : sept pl. de costumes / par François-Guillaume Ménageot]
Costume designs by François-Guillaume Ménageot (1809): Montesuma, Telasco, Amazily, Pontife mexicain. [Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique : sept pl. de costumes / par François-Guillaume Ménageot]. 1809
Source: gallica.bnf.fr (click for higher resolution image)

Even in 1809, as Napoleon’s Spanish campaign dragged on, Fernand Cortez was uncomfortably behind the political times; by 1816, a work celebrating a Napoleon-esque conqueror’s achievements was obviously out of style.1 In response, Spontini and Jouy made heavy revisions for the second version, changing the plot, characters, music, and dramatic structure of the opera. As Philipp Spitta’s lengthy article in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes, in the revival of May, 1817, “the 3rd act now became the 1st, the 1st act the 2nd, and a part of the 2nd the 3rd.”2 If anything, this simplifies the structural changes; Théodore de Lajarte provides a more detailed enumeration in Curiosités de l’Opéra (1883).3 Among numerous other revisions, the role of Montezuma is entirely new to the second version, and Spontini rewrote Cortez’s part (originally for haute-contre) for tenor or bari-tenor.

While the second version of Fernand Cortez enjoyed greater success, remaining a fixture of the repertoire through the early 1830s, Spontini made still more changes to the third act for Berlin productions in 1824 and 1832, this time with the assistance of the poet M. Théaulon (Marie-Emmanuel-Guillaume-Marguerite Théaulon de Lambert). The vocal score here, most likely published ca. 1830, probably reflects one of these later versions; although I haven’t yet compared the editions measure-to-measure, most notably it does not include the lengthy 3rd act ballet published in Erard’s 1817 full score (HOLLIS record).

  • Fernand Cortez
    Fernand Cortez; ou, La conquête du Mexique, tragédie lyrique en 3 actes, de De Jouy et Esmenard. Mise en musique par Gasparo Spontini. Représentée pour le première fois, sur le théâtre de l’Académie royale de musique, le 15, 28 novembre 1809. Paris : Imbault [1809?]. Mus 813.2.622
  • Fernand Cortez. Vocal score
    Fernand Cortez, ou, La conquête du Mexique : tragédie lyrique en 3 actes / de De Jouy et Esmènard ; mise en musique par G. Spontini. Nouv. éd. Paris : Melles. Erard, [1830?]. Mus 813.2.622.5

-Kerry Masteller


1. Note that while the opera had been commissioned by Napoleon and the 1809 edition is dedicated to his sister, Caroline Bonaparte, the later edition is prudently dedicated to the Comte de Pradel, who, as ministre de la Maison du Roi, had jurisdiction over the Opéra.

2. Phillipp Spitta, “Spontini, Gasparo Luigi Pacifico,” A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (A.D. 1450-1889), comp. George Grove (London: Macmillan, 1883), 3:669. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006210888

3. Théodore de Lajarte, Curiosités de l’Opéra (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1883), 175-183. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001458669

2 Comments

  1. Wonderful that you are digitizing these scores, especially the piano-vocal reductions: thank you. Can I get hold of any of Cortez’s rewritten arias for a Faculty Recital I am planning at the U. of Georgia in March ’15? Greetings to the Yard and to
    Lowell House and the 88 steps of the bell tower!

  2. loebmusic

    September 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    Dear Lawrence,
    You’re very welcome! You can download PDF copies of these scores by clicking the title links to open the digitized versions, then clicking the “print” button and following the instructions to save a sequence of pages, or the entire score.

    (The Klappermeisters still ring the Lowell House bells, of course, though now with the benefit of additional training from the monks of the Danilov Monastery.)

    Best wishes for a successful recital,
    Kerry Masteller

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