Chapter Review of Ferdinand Cortez (1887-88)

Review in The New York Times:

Spontini's opera "Ferdinand Cortez" was performed for the first time in America at the Metropolitan Opera House last night. The house was filled by a large and brilliant audience, which found much to applaud in the work. The opera cannot be said to have made as deep an impression as more recently composed works have done. This was manifestly owing to the fact that the musical culture of today has raised the demands of hearers far beyond the point which they touched in Spontini's time. The production of last night was uncommonly commendable in respect of stage attire, and this will probably go far toward giving the opera a profitable career. Some of the more glittering episodes were enthusiastically applauded, and the principal singers were called out many times.

"Ferdinand Cortez" was Spontini's second great work. "La Vestale" having preceded it. The first performance took place on Nov. 28, 1809, with Lavigne and Mme. Branchu in the principal parts. Etienne Jouy, a man who saw the genius of Spontini in an early failure, wrote the libretto. Some differences of opinion have arisen on this point, but Dr. Philip Splita of Berlin seems to set them fairly at rest in his admirable article on Spontini in Grove's Dictionary of Music. He says: "The libretto was again by Jouy, and not by Esménard, who merely made a few alterations and additions. Napoleon took au interest in the production of "Cortez" from an idea that it might influence public opinion in favor of his plans for the Spanish war then in progress. As soon as the preparations began Jouy was warned by the Minister of the Interior to introduce into the piece more distinct allusions to the topics of the day, He was specially to strengthen the contrast between the humane views of Cortez and the fanaticism of the Mexicans, and thus suggest a comparison between the liberal-minded French and the bigoted Spaniards of the. day. Jouy declining to make these alterations, the Minister proposed Esménard for the work. Napoleon was present at the first performance, but the result did not fully answer his expectations. Spontini had thrown so much life into the character of the Spaniards, and had made them so bold, patriotic, and fearless of death that the sympathies of the audience were enlisted is behalf of the Spaniards in general, and Napoleon ran the risk of witnessing an exactly opposite effect to that he had intended."

The present form of the libretto is not that as was first made known. At a revival in May, 1817, the third act became the first, the first act the second, and a part of the second the third. Some passages were stricken out and others added, and Montezuma was a wholly new role. The part of Amazilly was materially strengthened by opposing in her bosom the emotions of love and patriotism, whereas in the draft version the former had crushed the latter. Those changes were made by Jouy, for Esménard was now dead. In November, 1823, Spontini engaged Théauleon, who had just arrived in Paris, to remodel the third act, which then took its present form. This act had been weak, but Théauleon's alterations brought its interest up to that of the other two. The story of the opera is easily told.

Cortez with a Spanish army is besieging the city of Mexico. His brother Alvarez and a few others are prisoners, and are about to be sacrificed by the Mexicans. Montezuma, the King, tries to have them preserved as hostages for the departure of the invaders. Amazilly, sister of Telasco, the Mexican commander, has turned Catholic and fled to Cortez to escape the rage of the pagan priests. She and Cortez love one another, and the eagerness to bring about peace leads her to revisit the city, where the priests nearly make her a victim. Cortez advances, however, and Montezuma sends Amazilly back to the Spanish camp to arrange an armistice. Telasco in the meantime has been undermining the fidelity of the soldiers of Cortez with presents. He follows Amazilly to their camp under a flag of truce to second her arguments and treats the invading army to the spectacle of a Mexican festival. An insurrection breaks out among Cortez's forces, but he burns his ships and by his eloquence gives his men new courage. Telasco is held as a hostage for the safety of the Spanish prisoners. The release of Alvarez and his friends is promised and Cortez frees Telasco, who hurries to the city and opposes the keeping of faith with his late captor. Montezuma still opposes the slaying of the prisoners, but they are about to meet their doom when Amazilly swims a lake which separates the camp of the Spaniards from the city and offers her life for that of the captives. Cortez, however, takes the city by assault, saves every one, and peace is made.

It was well for Spontini that Napoleon had a will of his own. The Little Corporal compelled the production of "La Vestale" against the judgment of the manager and critics of the Paris Académie, declaring that it was a fine work and would meet with success. The prediction of the great soldier was fulfilled, and the opera was enthusiastically approved by the Parisians. "Ferdinand Cortez" followed, and met with similar approval. The bent of Spontini's genius is indicated by the fact that his most successful operas were written for Paris and embodied the martial spirit and splendor of the First Empire. The "pomp and circumstance" of a military Court are reflected in the scores of "La Vestale" and "Ferdinand Cortez." But the merits of the composer do not stop there. Spontini's most striking ideas were cast in a heroic mold and his expression of them was formed into a meet largeness and energy of manner. But his muse was not a stranger to the gentler aspects of the soul. Tenderness and sympathy are found in his writings. Again, it is to his credit that he is seldom betrayed into triviality or superficial sound by the glitter of spectacular episodes in his operas. He never sacrifices a high dramatic feeling to a mere vulgar effect. It is true, as Berlioz notes, that he was the first composer to introduce the bass drum and cymbals to the patrons of the Paris opera, and here we perceive one effect of the military epoch on his scoring; but his instrumentation is strong, rich, and brilliant. He has been accused with some reason of over accentuation in his scoring, and of sacrificing beauty and perspicuity of idea to sonorous thunder. However, our ears are leas tender than those of Spontini's day. We have learned a thing or two about scoring in the last half century, and it would take a good deal of brass and sheepskin to astonish us in this consulship of Wagner. We are more likely to find fault with other peculiarities of Spontini than with his bass drum or his trombones. He was a natural subject for reproach, for he was progressive, and so-called conservatism is always biting the heels of progress. Spontini's "Milton" was a one-act operetta in which he broke away from the trivialities of his youth and launched into an earnest search for true dramatic expression, as all worthy musicians have done.

There are on the whole fewer faults of harmony and less piling up of effects in "Cortez" than in "La Vestale," and it is generally conceded to be the better work of the two. Musicians have always admired Spontini's work. Schumann, one of the keenest of critics, declares that he heard this opera for the first time with rapture. Berlioz wrote an adulatory letter to Spontini, praised him warmly in his public writings, and points out to students of instrumentation some of his striking effects in orchestration. The judgment of both these men has been in some measure justified. In "Cortez" Spontini shows great skill in his use of masses and he displays a firm hand and dignified style in the construction of the larger dramatic forms. His individuality is distinguished throughout the work, and the thoughtful hearer ends himself under the influence of an ambitious mind. Telasco, Amazilly, and Cortez are treated with characteristic music, and the contrast between the natures of the Spaniards and Mexicans is shown in a fairly good manner. Gluck is credited with the first attempt at this kind of contrast in his "Paris and Helen," and Spontini has been frequently praised as his successor. He is commended, and justly, for approaching more nearly than others his model, and in turn becoming himself an influential factor in musical progress.

There are, however, spots on the sun, and there are defects in the work of this Spontini, to praise whom would be a pleasure because he is a new acquaintance to us. In spite of the fact that Berlioz found some clever combinations in Spontini's scores, it must be frankly admitted that as an instrumental composer he does not rank high. The immense resources of the art of instrumentation were not at his command, for he had never been thoroughly disciplined in this important school. In some of his most notable numbers, conceived with dignity and composed with skill, this lack of ability in handling the orchestral parts makes itself felt, for his accompaniments are often sadly deficient in variety. This is all the more to be wondered at, because Spontini had a deep reverence for Mozart, the study of whose writings ought to have revealed to him his own deficiencies. Added to this frequent baldness of instrumentation is general hardness and inflexibility of melody which prevents it from being the mastering element in the mass of sounds. And the melody is not aided as much as it ought to be by the orchestra. Indeed, Spontini had no great gift for dramatic expression through his body of instruments. This weakness is far more noticeable in our day than it was in his. Wagner has made of the orchestra a new power, and the frequenter of the German opera of today will never again be able to regard the instrumental part of an opera with the indifference of the pre-Wagnerite epoch. Spontini did not understand the art of illustrating and elucidating the sentiments of his characters by means of his orchestra. Weber far surpassed him in this respect. That, however, was in the line of the progress of musical development, for the German composers have generally led the way in the elevation of the orchestra. It is not to be inferred from what has here been said that Spontini's instrumentation is bare. It is often, as before intimated, sonorous and brilliant; but it is deficient in significance and suggestiveness. In short, his dramatic expression and characterization are confined to his melodies and massive combinations and do not extend to that variety and aptness of instrumental treatment which later composers have made familiar.

In fact, Spontini's opera, taken as a whole, is not to be regarded in the same light as it was 79 years ago. If we could carry ourselves back to the musical standpoint of that time we should be better able to justly estimate the value and originality of the composer's work. In his day he was a strong factor in the development of his art. But the tremendous evolution of the opera since the production of "Ferdinand Cortez" has demonstrated the fact that the lyric stage is destined for higher things than Spontini ever dreamed of. Wagner has opened for the German opera and Verdi for the Italian new and loftier fields than their elders imagined. The day of the "recitativo stromentato" is gone, and it may as well be frankly admitted that the long passages of this antiquated style of musical discourse in "Ferdinand Cortez" fell flat last night and were plainly wearisome to the hearers. The arias, duos, and other set numbers of the opera were heard with more laver. Some of them are notably good. Among these may be mentioned the opening number of the first act with its virile and savage clients of Mexicans, the trio of Spanish prisoners, which is dignified and somewhat religious in cast, the fine duo between Amazilly and Telasco, the energetic and. expressive solo of Cortez in the second act, and of Telasco in the third act, and the duet between Amazilly and Cortez. Aside from these numbers there is not a great deal in the opera that will have weight with auditors familiar with such works as "Siegfried," "Aida" and "The Queen of Sheba." The richer and more varied harmonies of the most recent operas, with their mobile modulations and startling progressions, and the eloquence of the melodies which can be built upon them, make it impossible for us to get from the "Cortez" music that elevation of spirit which it must have produced in contemporary hearers. Here and there the vigor and sweep of the writing has its effect, but it is not deep or lasting.

It has been abundantly proclaimed that the management of the Metropolitan would put this opera upon the stage in a striking manner, and every promise has been bountifully fulfilled. The splendors of the "Queen of Sheba" have not been eclipsed, perhaps not equaled; but everything has been done that could be. The scenery is generally effective and is all new and brilliant. There is a fine aspect of solidity about the barbaric temple of the first act, which is an unusually good bit of scenic display. The second act is dazzling to the eye with its pageantry of armored men and decorated women. There is a rich and admirably-arranged ballet, excellently executed by a large corps, headed by Mlle. De Gillen. There is an ear-stunning explosion, heralding the destruction of Cortez's ships, which sink with commendable celerity beneath some rather wooden waves. And the act closes with a spirited onset of Spanish troops led by Cortez and a staff of half a dozen officers, mounted on gayly-caparisoned chargers. The costumes are all new and brilliant, and the contrast of color and design between the half-Indian dresses of the Mexicans and the garb of the Spaniards is well designed. Altogether, the opera is mounted in a notably rich and glittering style that does credit to the generous spirit of the management of the house. The handling of the army of supernumeraries and the general stage groupings is fairly good and adds to the effectiveness of the spectacle, on which the future prosperity of the work will largely depend.

The performance last night will doubtless be improved, and it will stand it. Herr Niemann was the Cortez, and he was in such bad voice that it was at times painful to observe his labor. He must, however, be credited with not sparing himself. He worked like a hero, and in his dramatic scene of the second act acquitted himself with honor. He did not, however, deserve to be accredited by taking five recalls with the entire applause of the audience, much of which was called forth by the spectacular dress of the act. Herr Robinson acted and sang Telasco with spirit, but his vocal explosiveness marred his work. Herr Fisher as the High Priest and Herr Alvary as Alvarez were excellent. Herr Elmblad made Montezuma look like a very bad Indian, and sang his music with the voice of an irate foghorn. Fräulein Meisslinger sang the music of Amazilly tolerably, but did not reach the dramatic possibilities of the part. Undoubtedly all the artists will do better hereafter, when further consideration can he given to their work. The chorus sang woefully out of tune at times; but this seems to be inevitable. The orchestra had no trouble with its share of the evening, and Herr Seidl was quite at home in the conducting. "