Fernand Cortez

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Fernand Cortez, ou La conquête du Mexique (Hernán Cortés, or The Conquest of Mexico) is an opéra in three acts by Gaspare Spontini with a French libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Joseph-Alphonse d’Esmenard. It was first performed on 28 November 1809 by the Académie Impériale de Musique (Paris Opera) at the Salle Montansier.

Background and performance history[edit]

The opera was originally intended as political propaganda to support the Emperor Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. Cortez symbolises Napoleon while the bloodthirsty Aztec priests are meant to represent the Spanish Inquisition. The emperor himself is said to have suggested the theme of the opera to Spontini and the premiere was held in his presence. The popularity of the piece declined with the waning of the French army's fortunes in Spain.

The 1809 premiere was famous for its spectacular effects, including the appearance of 17 live horses on stage. Critics complained about the adventurous harmony and the loudness of the music. The richness of the staging, extensive use of dance and the treatment of an historical subject make Spontini's work the precursor of French Grand Opera. It was greatly admired by Hector Berlioz.

Spontini substantially revised the opera for a revival in Paris on 28 May 1817. Two further revisions were made for performances in Berlin in 1824 and 1832.


Role Voice type[1] Premiere Cast
Fernand Cortez taille (baritenor)[2] Étienne Lainez
Télasco taille[3] François Lays
Alvar haute-contre[4] Laforêt
High priest bass[5] Henri-Étienne Dérivis
Moralèz bass[6] Jean-Honoré Bertin
Two Spanish officers taille/bass[7] Louis Nourrit, Albert
A Mexican officer taille[8] Martin[9]
Amazily soprano[10] Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu
Ladies companions of Amazily sopranos[11] Lacombe, Reine[9]
Coryphaei taille/bass Martin, Picard[9]


This is based on the original version of 1809.

Act 1[edit]

The opera is based on the story of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, and his invasion of Aztec Mexico. At the beginning of the opera, Cortez persuades his mutinous troops not to embark for home. His brother, Alvaro, is a prisoner of the Aztecs and Cortez is also in love with the Aztec princess, Amazily. Amazily's brother, Télasco, arrives and tells the Spaniards to leave Mexico. Cortez responds by setting fire to his own ships.

Act 2[edit]

The Spaniards advance on the Aztec temple with Télasco their prisoner. They succeed in freeing Alvaro. Télasco accuses his sister Amazily of being a traitor and the Aztecs threaten to behead her if Alvaro is not returned to them. Amazily decides to sacrifice herself and hands herself over to the Aztecs. Cortez orders his men to attack the temple.

Act 3[edit]

In the temple, the priests prepare to sacrifice Alvaro when Amazily arrives. An oracle from the god announces that he wants the blood of his enemies. News arrives that the Aztec emperor Montezuma has been captured by the Spaniards. The high priest decides to go ahead with the sacrifice of Amazily. The Spaniards arrive just in time to save her. Amazily and Cortez are united in marriage.


  • Fernand Cortez (1817 version) Soloists, Slovak National Philharmonic Choir, Slovak National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jean-Paul Penin (Accord, 1999)


  1. ^ The tenor parts are notated, on the period printed score, either in the tenor clef, which was customarily used for the taille voice (lower tenor), or in the alto clef which was used for the haute-contre.
  2. ^ Score, p. 54.
  3. ^ Score, p. 155.
  4. ^ Score, p. 499.
  5. ^ Score p. 518.
  6. ^ Score, p. 67.
  7. ^ Score, p. 52 (a mariner and an officer) and p. 501 (two Spaniards).
  8. ^ Score, p. 558
  9. ^ a b c Member(s) of the choir.
  10. ^ Score, p. 100.
  11. ^ Score, p. 460.
  • Original libretto: Fernand Cortez ou La Conquête du Mexique, Opéra en 3 Actes, Représenté pour le première Fois, sur le Théâtre de l'Académie Imperiale de Musique, le 28 novembre 1809, Paris, Roullet, 1809 (accessible for free online at Gallica - BNF)
  • Original printed score: Fernand Cortez ou La Conquête du Mexique, Tragédie Lyrique en 3 Actes de MM De Jouy et Esmenard; Mise en Musique et Dediée à Sa Majesté La Reine des Deux Siciles par Gasparo Spontini, Paris, Imbault, 1809(?) (accessible for free online at Harvard University Library)
  • Printed score of the 1817 edition: Fernand Cortez ou La conquête du Méxique, Tragédie Lyrique en 3 Actes de MM. De Jouy et Esmenard; Mise en Musique et Dédiée à Son Excellence Monsieur le Comte de Pradel... par G. Spontini (représentée pour la première fois sur le théâtre de l'Académie royale de musique le 28 novembre 1809 et remise avec des changemens, le 28 mai 1817; nouvelle édition), Paris, Hanry, ca 1817 (accessible for free online at Gallica - BNF)
  • Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
  • Del Teatro (in Italian)
  • Amadeus Online
Other sources
  • Faul, Michel, Les aventures militaires, littéraires et autres d'Etienne de Jouy, Editions Seguier, France, 2009. ISBN 978-2-84049-556-7

External links[edit]