Spontini’s “Fernand Cortez” Recorded Complete

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AwardSPONTINI: Fernand Cortez / Dario Schmunck, ten (Fernand Cortez); Luca Lombardo, bar (Telasco); Alexia Voulgaridou, sop (Amazily); David Ferri Durà, ten (Alvar); André Courville, bass (High Priest); Gianluca Margheri, bar (Moralez); Lisandro Guinis, bass (Spanish Officer); Davide Ciarrocchi, ten (1st Spanish Prisoner); Nicolò Ayroldi, bar (2nd Spanish Prisoner); Leonardo Melani, bass (Mexican Officer); Davide Siega, ten (A Sailor); Silvia Capra, Delia Palmieri, sop (Amazily’s ladies); Florence May Festival Chorus & Orch.; Jean-Luc Tingaud, cond / Dynamic DYN-CDS7868.03 (CD) or 37868 (DVD) (live: Florence, October 16 & 20, 2019)

In a world where only four of Spontini’s operas—La Fuga in Maschera, Milton, La Vestale and Olimpie—have received complete commercial recordings, it is not only refreshing but astounding to see this, the first commercial recording of his important 1809 opera Fernand Cortez. This is a recording on par with the first-ever recordings of Gluck’s Armide, Berlioz’ Les Troyens, Wagner’s Rienzi and Massenet’s Le Cid as among the most important opera recordings of our time, and it is to Dynamic’s credit that they worked hard to amass a generally good cast…not a perfect one, but clearly fine enough to give first-time listeners a glimpse into what was, in my view, a mid-19th century dramatic opera on par with Verdi’s I Masnadieri or I Due Foscari composed 40 years ahead of its time.

Until now, however, we have only had abridged “pirate” performances in Italian to go by, of which the two most famous are the 1951 San Carlo cast which included Gino Penno as Cortez, Renata Tebaldi as Amazily, young Aldo Protti as Telasco and conductor Gabriele Santini, and a 1974 RAI broadcast featuring Bruno Prevedi, Angela Gulin, Antonio Blancas Laplaza and conductor Lovro von Matačic. Both have their strong points, but this recording supersedes them. In fact, I would postulate that no listener alive today, not even those who own the previous pirate recordings, really have any idea as to the scope and richness of this score.

The DVD production of this opera, as opposed to 99.9% of all opera videos I’ve seen in the past decade, is simply wonderful. Director Cecilia Ligorio, possibly realizing the importance of this production, used period costumes and realistic, representative sets. The Spaniards look like Spaniards. The Aztecs look like Aztecs. No one is naked, cross-dressed, trapped in a cage, running around a maze with cheese like giant mice, dressed as carnival freaks, perverted clergy or Nazis. You get what you would expect to see, and the stage direction is quite excellent. Moreover, the sound quality of the DVD is even more spectacular than the CD, being in Dolby Surround Sound. Even listening through headphones, the soundstage is miraculous. My sole caveat was that much of it was set, and filmed, in near-darkness, which caused a bit of eyestrain. But each of the principals is a fine actor in his or her own right, and the production really grabs your attention. For the ballet sequences, they used the Compagnia Nuovo BallettO di ToscanA, an outstanding group.

The booklet goes over the various different versions of the opera that emerged between its original 1809 version and 1817. After the fall of Napoleon, Spontini took the first part of Act III and made it the core of Act I whereas the original first act became Act II with the second act becoming Act III. To quote from Paolo Petazzi’s excellent notes, “Many passages were shifted, many roles downsized. The High Priest, an absolute protagonist in the third act of the 1809 version, lost all of his arias, becoming little more than a walk-on, while the character of Montezuma, which was present in 1808 but was later suppressed…was reintroduced.” Montezuma is present in the 1951 abridged performance with Tebaldi and Penno, which indicates the later 1817 revision. The version used in this recording and DVD is the original, performed for the first time in almost two centuries. It stems from the critical edition Petazzi made for the “Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini,” which recovers all passages from the manuscript that Spontini left out of the printed edition, “reintegrating not only many verses eliminated from choruses and arias, but also all all the sections for which we have text in the 1809 first-version libretto, but no corresponding music in the Imbault [published] score.”

For those who don’t know, the general criticism of this opera stems from the fact that it was written at Napoleon’s insistence as a thinly veiled paean to himself. In order to do so, Spontini dropped his pet project of the time, an operatic version of Elektra, and it is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, he never returned to it. But what music he produced! Fernand Cortez fairly bristles with Italianate energy, yet never descends into the kind of cheap melody that unfortunately characterized most of Rossini’s, Bellini’s and Donizetti’s dramatic operas. The melodic lines of Fernand Cortez are more strophic, more heroic, and in fact show a clear influence on Berlioz’ Troyens as well as the Verdi works already mentioned. Spontini did not hesitate to create big effects with the orchestra and chorus never heard before in an opera house, thus the comparison to Les Troyens and Aïda is quite apt. The only old-fashioned element still prevalent here is that of sung recitative, but in this opera Spontini accompanied it with the orchestra and, as he had done with La Vestale, tied all the parts of each act into a unified whole. In one fell swoop, Spontini created the genre of Grand Opéra, which had never really existed before him.

A perfect example of the differences between Spontini, an admirer the Gluckian aesthetic, and Rossini, progenitor of bouncy Italian melodies, can be heard in Amazily’s first-act aria, “Hélas! Elle n’est plus!,” where the melodic line progresses almost like conversation, with constant changes in where the music is placed both melodically and rhythmically moment to moment. Rossini and Meyerbeer would have written a Lovely Tune with Climactic High Notes—undoubtedly pretty and attractive, but a far cry from the brilliant, original creation that Spontini gives us here. In other words, it may not be entertaining, but it is dramatically apt. The same is true of the ensuing Amazily-Cortez duet, “Quels sons nouveaux.” Here, Spontini maintains a steady 6/8 rhythm throughout, but in places the accents are more march-like than in others. And then note how the music progresses without a break into the ensuing chorus, which uses a variation on the tune of the duet. It was yet another way that Spontini used to bind his scenes and acts together. And that, dear readers, is why his music was superior to that of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and even Meyerbeer.

Of course, we must remember that French Grand Opéra was a genre designed for entertainment and not for the edification of the audience. As in the cases of Le Prophète and Le Cid, the real story on which the libretto was based was skewed to present a positive, uplifting drama. In reality, Hernan Cortez was not such a “good guy.” He invaded an ancient culture he knew nothing about and had no respect for. His goal was to conquer Mexico and add it to the laurels of Spain, which in turn would add to his own laurels. But as several others have said when considering the criticism of the equally distorted plots of Meyerbeer’s operas, that isn’t the point. The point is that, within its own frame of reference, the music faithfully executes the plot as it was re-written. One could as easily substitute General George Patton for Cortez and the Nazis for the Aztecs, and you’d still have a good, rousing musical drama that works in its own world.

The plot revolves around Cortez’ adventures in Aztec Mexico. In his quest to free his brother Alvaro, who was being held prisoner by the Aztecs, he falls in love with the Aztec princess Amazily. When her brother Telasco arrives and orders Cortez to leave Mexico, Cortez responds by setting fire to his own ships. Cortez and his soldiers succeed in freeing Alvaro, but Telasco accuses Amazily of being a traitor. The Aztecs threaten to behead her if Alvaro is not returned to them. Amazily, deciding to sacrifice herself, allows the Aztecs to capture her as Cortez orders his men to attack the temple.

Inside the temple, the Aztec priests are preparing to sacrifice Alvaro when Amazily arrives. An oracle from the gods demands their enemies’ blood when news arrives that their emperor, Montezuma, has been captured by the Spaniards, but they plan to kill Alvaro and Amazily anyway. The Spaniards arrive in the nick of time to save them, and she marries Cortez.

Considering the sad state of spinto tenors nowadays, I was amazed to hear how good Argentine-born Dario Schmunck was. The voice is not without a bit of strain, but although the voice bends it does not break; nor does it degenerate into a wobble. Looking on YouTube, I found him singing an exquisite “Una furtive lagrima” from 2006, when his voice was rather smaller but also had no strain. I’m a little concerned that what he has at this point may not last, that he might be blowing his voice out a bit as Placido Domingo did when young, but his tone is clearer and less thick-sounding than Domingo’s and he sings with a real “inner” feeling for the character that Domingo rarely had.

But one wonders if this is really the kind of voice that Spontini had in mind when composing the score. Despite the fact that, aside from Schmunck, our other Cortez’ on records also had spinto voices, and that the kind of sound that they produced is exactly the kind of French heroic tenor that came into being with Louis-Gilbert Duprez, the first Cortez, Étienne Lainez, is described on Wikipedia as a “taille” or “baritenor,” in other words a high baritone with some extended notes up top. You may say this is inconsequential, but if you’re going to fret over whether or not the orchestra is playing with straight tone or not, this is a historically-informed casting question that needs to be addressed. Remember that the first Arnold in Guillaume Tell and Raoul in Les Huguenots was not Duprez but Adolphe Nourrit, a singer with a pure, refined tone production who sang most of his high notes in head voice and not from the chest. Yes, Virginia, operatic singers evolved just as instruments did, though from a practical perspective I have no issue with Schmunck singing this role for us today. (FYI, the baritone role of Telasco was also assigned to a “taille,” François Lays, in the original cast.) Whatever the case, when you hear Cortez’ “Suivez-moi, Castillans” at the end of Act I, you are listening to the very first “dramatic tenor cabaletta” in musical history—the forerunner of Arnold’s “Corriam” in Guillaume Tell and Manrico’s “Di quella pira” in Il Trovatore. Spontini is also more harmonically adventurous in this score than in Vestale. Note, for instance, how he suddenly throws a key change in the middle of the Amazily-Telasco duet, “Dieu de Mexique, Dieu vengeur!” Nor is this the only number in which Spontini indulged in surprising key changes; indeed, they abound in Act II. Many French critics of the day complained bitterly about this because it didn’t follow their “rules of harmony.” In Act II, we also get the very first “concerted number” in which three voices—Telasco and the two Spanish prisoners—sing an a cappella trio in which their voices intertwine.

Soprano Alexia Voulgaridou, our Amazily, does not quite match Schmunck in getting inside her character, but the voice is a very fine one, much like that of Antonietta Stella at her best. In this day and age, that, too, is no small achievement. Some of her lines in the first act have a strange sound to them, almost as if Spontini were looking back just a bit to Vestale while wanting to look ahead to Meyerbeer, Berlioz and early Wagner, but to his credit Spontini managed to fold the more stately dramatic style of Gluck, his musical hero, into an Italian aesthetic, and it works. Also very fine is baritone Gianluca Margheri as Moralez, a singer who presents the best of both worlds, having both an excellent, unstrained voice and a good interpretation of the character. Of the principal characters, only Luca Lombardi as Telasco really has a terrible voice which is unfocused and sags in pitch whenever he sings sustained notes.

The only real drawback in this performance is the somewhat sluggish conducting of Jean-Luc Tingaud. His tempi just always sound a shade too slow, and some of the ensembles lack energy. When the outstanding principals are singing, this defect is less evident, but in the choruses you really miss the leadership of Santini or von Matačic. But for me, the pleasure of being able to hear this opera complete and in French outweighed this slightly negative aspect. Indeed, the generally high level of the singing makes this a much better choice for Fernan Cortez than the Riccardo Muti recording makes for La Vestale despite that opera getting outstanding conducting. My sole complaint, as it always is with French Grand Opéra, is the over-preponderance of ballet music, here placed not only near the end of Act I but also, incongruously, at the very end of the opera…but alas, that WAS the convention of the day. Otherwise, well recommended.

OK, Dynamic: How about very good, complete recordings, in the original French and German, of La Vestale and Agnes von Hohenstaufen? We await your reply!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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