Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 2019-20 Review: Fernand Cortez

Alexia Voulgaridou Shines In Cecilia Ligorio’s Sumptuous Production

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Monasta)

In 1808 France turned on its ally, Spain, who up to this point had been jointly engaged in a war against Portugal. Aware of the power of propaganda, its Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, expressed a wish for an opera on the subject of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. The parallels between the events were fairly clear. France was a modern military power, while Spain was an decadent society, in which the power of the Crown and the Catholic Church along with its Inquisition still held sway, they were institutions which belonged to the past, and which Napoleon felt his duty to modernise. In the same way, the conquistadors having witnessed the barbaric practices of Mexican society, which included a priestly caste who practiced human sacrifice, felt obliged to do away with it in the name of progress. The underlying causes which drove both wars of conquest, however, were far more unprincipled and rapacious, namely aggrandizement, territory and plunder, not that Napoleon, himself, saw it in these terms or would have been prepared to admit to it. Then, of course, there was the the successful military leader Fernando Cortez, who provided the perfect model for Napoleon himself: a courageous military leader who led his army to victory. Thus it was that the Italian composer Gaspare Spontini, to a libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Joseph Alphonse d’Esmenard, was commissioned to write, “Fernand Cortez, ou La conquete du Mexique.”

Premiered in 1809 at the Paris Opéra, it managed only 13 performances before being withdrawn for political and dramaturgical reasons. After a thorough revision, however, it returned to the stage in 1817, where this time it managed to establish itself. For this production, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentina decided to go with the 1809 version, for what was the first presentation in modern times. It is also a brave decision, for in an era in which post-colonial guilt and cultural relativism dominate the historical perspective, an opera dedicated to the glory, courage and triumph of a conquistador who slaughtered between 100,000 and 240,000 native people and destroyed their civilization, is unlikely to sit easily with an audience. It was, therefore, no easy task to stage the work; one false step and it is likely that its director would have walked into a minefield.

A Bold Production

This task fell to Cecilia Ligorio, who took a bold and imaginative approach, in which by clearly setting it in the 16th century, she presented Cortez’s behavior, his glorification and conquest, as products of his time, yet she simultaneously managed to shed doubt on the morality of his behavior. She does not give Cortez a free pass on the grounds that it was a different era, with different values, that his actions were dictated by higher motives, or that no one was aware that what they were dong was wrong. Moreover, Ligorio achieved this without disrupting the drama as provided by Spontini, de Jouy and d’Esmenard; nothing is added to the libretto, nothing is deliberately distorted. Although to be fair, to an extent she is aided by Spontini’s music and the de Jouy’s and d’Esmenard’s libretto which in the character of the Mexican, Amazily, present a noble and courageous spirit which surpasses that of any of the conquistadors.

Ligorio’s interventions manifest themselves in the form non-verbal additions, and movement especially in the dance sequences. During the overture, Moralez, one of Cortez’s senior officers is seen writing a journal at the side of the stage, the words of which are projected onto a transparent curtain in the front of the set, in which he gives his impression of Cortez as a man obsessed by “sea, gold and conquest,” and his contempt for the Mexicans, referring to them as “rabid beasts.” On another occasion, he ponders whether Cortez is a “sane man gone mad or madman who appears sane.” Moralez is critical, and his thoughts are injected into the narrative. It is no longer possible to see Cortez as simply an honorable conquistador, a man of his time. The door is opened for the audience to cast a critical eye on his actions, to look back and to judge him.

Ligorio also uses the choral scenes to push the point home. When the native women arrive to meet Cortez’s men for the first time, they are curious, slightly nervous, flirtatious and obviously naïve, Cortez’s men for the most part stand there, stunned. The difference in their cultures and the obvious vulnerability of the Mexicans is made clear, although within the narrative, given that Mexican men are actually encircling the conquistadors at the time made the scene less compelling. Nevertheless, the contrast of male military force vis-à-vis female naïvety and vulnerability still highlighted the disparity.

It was in the dance scenes, choreographed by Alessia Maria Romano, which really defined the nature of the relationship between the Mexicans and Spanish. In the Act one dance scene, the conquistadors, wearing horses heads, danced aggressively and intimidated the petite Mexican women who danced graciously and seductively. The dance ends with the males forcing themselves upon the females. A simple yet forceful analogy, which exposes the power differential which Cortez was to mercilessly exploit.

Originally, the opera was conceived as a great spectacle with burning ships, lavish dance scenes and even live horses. Although Ligorio and her set designers, Alessia Colosso and Massimo Checchetto, did not quite go that far, they did create a worthwhile staging, with much to delight the eye. Four large black wooden ships dominated the back of the stage during the latter part of the first act. The act is supposed to end with Cortez setting fire to them in a show of defiance, and one did wonder exactly how this was going to be achieved. It did not disappoint: as the orchestra played out the final bars of the act, there were indeed yellow and red flames surging upwards in front of the ships, on the darkened stage. In fact, throughout the evening the staging was to high standard, aided in no small measure by the lighting designed by Maria Domenech Gimenez.

Vera Pierantoni Giua, responsible for costume design, did an excellent job. She created traditionally based clothing: dark, militaristic and clearly Spanish for the conquistadors; simple red, orange and purple slips for the female Mexicans, while the High Priest of the Aztecs was dressed in a blue skirt and a wonderful feathered head dress. Not only did the costumes clearly define the roles, but their contrasting colors, materials and designs further emphasized the power differences between the them.

Overall, it was a convincing and well-worked presentation which did not fall into the trap of recreating a work which simply extolled the virtues of Fernando Cortez, rather it acknowledged the negative aspects of the conquest, without heavy-handedly going against the intentions of the composer. Structurally, however, there is a dramatic weakness in the work: at the end of the final act, Cortes arrives in time to stop the High Priest torturing Amazily to death, and a rousing choral finale brings everything to a close, and the audience breaks into applause. However, it is not the end, there are at least two more ‘false’ endings, which on each occasion the audience responded to with applause, only for the opera to continue. When it does end, following a dance scene, the audience was unsure and took time to respond. Although it is not abnormal to finish acts with a ballet in tragedie lyrique (the genre of “Fernand Cortez”) it is not obligatory, and in this case was dramatically weak. However, in one way, it prevented a worse ending as Cortez’s uses his final words to forgive the Mexicans for their wicked behavior!

A Solid Cast

In the title role was the Argentinian tenor, Dario Schmunck, who sang with purpose and produced a fairly satisfying interpretation of the Conquistador, although he was caught between Spontini’s laudatory portrait of a beneficent Cortez, and Ligorio’s reading which hinted at a vicious rapacious character. Thus whilst Moralez informs the audience that Cortez is motivated by greed and conquest, he is played as contemplative and forgiving; a difficult circle to square, but Schmunck’s interpretation was a reasonably successful attempt. Vocally, he produced a solid performance, in which he brought nuance and passion to his singing. However, his projection could have been improved, as it lacked the necessary thrust to demand attention at times, especially during choral and ensemble pieces.

The standout solo performance of the evening came from the Greek soprano, Alexia Voulgaridou, in the role of Amazily, whose expressive performance uncovered the nobility and suffering of her character. She possesses a richly colored voice, bright and luminous, but with dark undertones which enabled her to furnish her lines with emotional depth and honesty, which combined with her use of well-placed accents and dynamic variations captured the subtlety and nuance of her words. Her Act two aria, ”Dieu terrible! Pretre jaloux!” in particular, in which she rages against the priests who want her death was powerfully delivered, and showed off her voice in fine style. Ensemble pieces were equally impressive, although her Act two duet with Télasco was fairly one-sided, the strength, expressiveness and intensity of her voice turning it into a conversation with the orchestra rather than the tenor, who was unable to reach the same standard.

In fact, the tenor, Luca Lombardo, in the role of Télasco was generally disappointing. Although there were aspects of his performance to admire, it was generally a lackluster reading in which he failed to bring sufficient depth to the character. Moreover, his singing was uneven, most notably in the arias, although recitatives were on the whole well-delivered.

The American bass-baritone, André Courville, produced an excellent performance in the role of the High Priest of the Mexicans. Looking every inch the implacable religious zealot, proud of his convictions and certain of his power, he dominated the scene set in the temple. His voice is powerful and authoritative. His aria, “Oh dolore! oh fatale presagio!” in which rails against Amazily’s treachery was delivered with menace and violence. Recitatives were carefully molded and sung with an uncompromising edge. However, what also impressed was the beauty of voice; it has a full-bodied, rounded sound underpinned by an inviting warmth which is able to draw the listener towards him.

The bass-baritone, Gianluca Margheri, cast as Cortez’s senior officer, Moralez, had his role enlarged, as he was also required to appear before and at the end of acts, in which he would share his silent thoughts about Cortez. He developed his character well, displaying firm, although critical support for Cortez, and successfully provided a more nuanced perspective of the events. His stature, swarthy appearance and dark clothing gave him the look of the typical conquistador. The role consists primarily of recitatives, of which there are a fair amount, and which Margheri dispatched with skill, injecting the lines with dynamic and accented inflections to develop the character.

David Ferri Durà, playing the relatively minor role of Cortez’s brother, Alvar, put in an engaging and confident performance. He possesses an appealing high-lying tenor, which he used to good effect, producing a consistent performance.

A Fine Chorus & Orchestra

Although “Fernand Cortez” is categorized as a tragedie lyrique, it contains many elements which can identify the opera as a work which opened up the way to French grand opera, with its elaborate dance scenes, spectacular scenery and its frequent use of large choruses. Therefore, having to perform a succession of choruses and crowd scenes, the Coro del Maggio Musicale had a lot of work to do, and under the direction of Lorenzo Fratini, it did not disappoint. In fact, it was in outstanding form, its singing was vibrant and full of brio, doing much to ensure the success of the production.

The conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud, produced a sensitive reading from the Orchestra del Maggio Musical Fiorentina, which captured the score’s chiaroscuro, successfully highlighting and contrasting the dark coloring of the work’s more threatening and oppressive scenes with the carefree lightness of the dance scenes and celebratory choruses. It is often claimed that the piece is overly loud, at least in parts, but this never became apparent, as Tinguad presented it with a light touch, although without compromising its essential vigor, so that the singers rarely found themselves overpowered.

Overall, this was an imaginative and well-presented production of a work that is rarely staged (in any of its versions). For large parts, its narrative, choral episodes, engaging music and staging were more than able to hold the attention of the audience, although in the final scene the tension did unravel, leading to an anti-climatic ending, which was a little disappointing. Ligario successfully turned a propaganda piece, aimed at celebrating Napoleon‘s Iberian campaign, into a more balanced drama in which the role of Cortez and his conquistadors were far from the triumphal heroes they were supposed to be, and in doing so, improved the quality of the narrative. Moreover, it was done without corrupting the musical or dramatic integrity of the work, through simple means which were cleverly integrated into the opera’s fabric. In conclusion, “Fernand Cortez” was a resounding success for Florence’s Maggio Musicale, despite its one or two minor failings.