After the triumph that welcomed La Vestale, it was commissioned to Gaspare Spontini an opera of historical-commemorative character, the Fernando Cortez, by De Jouy. Napoleon himself suggested to the musician the subject of this new opera that, as the previous one, was in a perfect wavelength as the imperial politics: this opera was in fact considered as an effective political tool for the emperor’s venture in Spain, intended to enhance the contrast between the liberal and humanitarian feelings of Cortez and the religious fanaticism of Mexicans, establishing an ideal relationship and an historical transposition between the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. The opera was performed on November 28th, 1809: rich and sumptuous in costumes, scenes and direction (the estimate of the expenses had been calculated on a base of 180 thousand francs), it determined Gaspare Spontini’s triumph in France and for this same reason it is considered as the opera-symbol of the French Empire’s music.
The opera was staged at the Imperial Academy of Music Theatre, in the presence of the emperor and of the kings of Sassonia and Westfalia: among the soloists appeared some interpreters of La Vestale, as the famous soprano Branchu. The opera definitely opened the way to the passage from the baroque opera with mythological subjects to the grand opéra of the romantic period, of which Gaspare Spontini is considered one of the brightest precursors.
The warlike heroic aspects proposed by Cortez will become in fact a constitutive part of the XIX Century’s French musical drama, as it is proved by the successes of Meyerbeer with the Huguenots, of Auber with La muette de Portici and of Berlioz with Troyens. In the drafting of the libretto, composers wanted to create a faithfulness account of the history of conquest and of Mexican customs’ representation, considering this one as an essential and necessary condition to pass from tragedy and myth, typical of the XVIII Century opera, to epic. As La Vestale, also Cortez remained for a long time in the Opera’s repertoire. On October 15th, 1814, it was staged for the first time in Berlin, becoming soon a popular title; in Italy it was first performed in February 1820, at the S. Carlo theatre of Naples, receiving however a meagre success. Spontini revised the opera in 1817.