Gaspare Spontini: Fernand Cortez @ Florence

The staging of such a rarity as Gaspare Spontini’s Fernand Cortez is always worth a travel, worthwhile it is also to spend a few words on its genesis and staging history. From what we know, Napoleon, perfectly conscious of the political support it could get from the cultural institutions in general and opera in particular, wished to sugar-coat his Spanish invasion and asked for a libretto that would display modern liberalism over religious bigotry. The plot of Fernand Cortez was perfect for Mexican invasion was at the time interpreted as liberation of the Mexican people from the Aztec oppressors and their barbaric cults by Cortez. But Fernand Cortez, which premiered on 28th November 1809 with Napoleon himself attending, had only a moderate success in France in the first 2 years, which might be due to the disastrous results of the Spanish invasion. We don’t know for sure whether it was Napoleon himself who withdraw it from the scenes. Its success in France established only between 1817 and the second third of the 19th century, with its second version and almost 250 performances. Abroad, the opera had a big success from the beginning, being performed in cities such as Dresden, Brussels,Vienna, Prague (the premiere directed by Weber) Berlin, Budapest, Weimar and Naples (with Rossini conducting) already in the first 15 years after its creation.

The premiere in 1809 was famous for its bombastic staging including Cortez’ ships set on fire, 14 horses on stage as well as the loud music which was much criticized. What makes the opera alluring is the realization of how Spontini’s music was a forerunner of the grand opera and a model for the French operas by Rossini and Meyerbeer. Another reason why it is interesting to hear Spontini’s music are the harmonic inventions. Not having the gift for melody, he worked on big dramatic scenes, dynamic extremes and harmonics which give a sense of continuous movement, harmonic frictions and instabilities.  Musical critics of the time wrote of “dissonances”, of “constant change of tonality “, or “ Full of modulations and dissonances which rapidly follow each other without a moment of rest.” Spontini’s accompaniment during airs and duets are often varied and delicate. However, director Jean-Luc Tingaud pays little attention to them and hastens over the score with little care on details. Additionally the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is big and has a pasty sound and a dubious acoustic, which prevents to hear all the delicate subtleties (at least from the side on the balcony it does) and therefore sometimes it took me time until i fully got the melody. Also, very often there was half a second time lag between the music in the pit and the singers or choir on stage. A quite unsatisfactory approach of the music.

I really admire the work of Cecilia Ligorio (and her whole team). She creates intriguing settings that manage well to absorb me into the physical space and psychological narrative of the plot. I had the same feeling in Martina Franca (Vaccaj’s Giulietta e Romeo) with its limited resources, and in the Venetian Semiramide last year. Also in Florence she plays with beautiful background canvases, which, masterfully lit, make for some evocative settings (the shore of lake Texcoco where Amazily wants to take her life with the weeds in the foreground is particularly attractive I thought). The movements are well choreographed and there never is a dip in tension. The ballets, a fundamental part in French opera, are modern yet gripping. The dancers (14, as the horses in 1809) give their best. The dances that close the opera, meant to celebrate the creation of a new Mexican culture (and idolize Cortez/Napoleon) are thoughtfully used by Ligorio to balance myth and reality: Cortez’ friend Moralez is seen during the last ballets writing his memoirs, thinking about the false views which are delivered by contrasting interpretations of history. He writes about the atrocities he saw, balancing the creation of new culture against the extermination of a whole society which was so praised by the self-celebratory Cortez, and admonishes to question false heroes. A wonderful and touching way of making theatre.

Amazily has the powerful and warm voice of Alexia Voulgaridou which fills the concert hall with ease. She sings well, has an audible voice in all registers, but sometimes a short breath, which are particularly regretful at the end of her first aria where the last top notes are separated from the rest, cutting the musical arch. Schmuck is scenically more credible in act 2 and 3, but he is not always able to bring the Spanish leader to life and his voice is often covered from the middle register down. The Telasco of Luca Lombardo is satisfactory and sings his aria well. Very good the Alvar of David Ferri Durà which, together with the two Spanish prisoners make for a nice Hymn in Act 3 . Remarkable also André Courville as Grand Pretre. Gianluca Margheri sings a fine Moralez

Conductor-Jean-Luc Tingaud, Director-Cecilia Ligorio, Sets-Massimo Checchetto and Alessia Colosso, Costumes-Vera Pierantoni Giua, Lights-Maria Domenech, Choreography-Alessio Maria Romano, Fernando Cortez-Dario Schmunck, Télasco-Luca Lombardo, Amazily-Alexia Voulgaridou, Alvar-David Ferri Durà, Moralez-Gianluca Margheri, High mexican priest-André Courville, 12 octover 2019, pictures from the site of the maggio musicale fiorentino https://www.maggiofiorentino.com/en/events/fernand-cortez-2/

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