La vestale

lavestaleSpontini’s 1807 work La Vestale is the latest French opera to get the Palazzetto Bru Zane treatment.  Ir’s extremely interesting as this work has a performance history not unlike the more famous Médée of Charpentier.  It’s very much a tragédie lyrique in the same basic style as the works of Gluck, though with some compositional innovations that did not endear the composer to the Paris musical establishment.  Indeed, but for the determined patronage of the Empress Josephine it likely would never have made it to the stage.  Like Médée it was initially very successful before disappearing from the repertoire in the later 19th century.  Also like Médée it was the subject of a mid 20th century revival, notably a 1954 La Scala production (in Italian) by Visconti featuring Maria Callas. Inevitably given the time and place it was given in a style that owed more to verismo than French classicism with a large modern orchestra, conventional (by 1950s standards) tempi and a rather more overblown singing style than was ever heard in early 19th century Paris.  If it were revived again for major houses one imagines it would still get essentially the same treatment.  Perhaps it will be the next international diva vehicle for Sondra Radvanovsky?

The plot is set in Rome at the time of the wars against the Gauls.  Julia, a vestal virgin, is in love with Licinius, to whom she was promised before her father’s dying wish consecrated her to Vesta.  Licinius is about to celebrate a Triumph after a successful campaign against the Gauls.  He’s also planning, with the help of his friend Cinna, to (sacrilegiously) run off with Julia.  The plot is suspected and then discovered because the sacred flame Julia is supposed to tend goes out in the middle of a sacrifice.  She is condemned to be buried alive but refuses to name Licinius.  He appears at the Field of Execration with a band of armed men including Cinna, intending to rescue Julia.  It looks like there is going to be a major dust up between Licinius’ gang and the citizens but then there’s a miracle and lightning relights the sacred flame.  Everybody decamps to the Temple of Venus for the marriage of Julia and Licinius.  For what it’s worth it’s said to be based n a true story that did not have the happy ending, insofar as any story from that period of Roman history can be said to be “true”.

The essential point of the Bru Zane recording is, of course, to try and recapture the spirit of the original.  Les talents lyriques, on period instruments, are the chosen orchestra with Christophe Rousset conducting.  The major roles are cast as they might have been back in the day rather than, say, using two Cavaradossis for the male leads.  Tempi are brisk, sometimes very brisk indeed.  A great example is the Grand Vestal’s first aria but there are lots of others.  The net result is something that sounds somewhat like the Gluck of Iphigénie en Tauride but with clear stylistic developments.  There’s lots of recit but it’s taken sufficiently briskly that things don’t drag.  There are classically elegant airs and well constructed ensemble numbers too.  It’s really rather good.  The use of period instruments really lightens up the textures, especially for the winds (there’s a surprisingly large brass section) and the players cope with the brisk tempi very well.

Casting is interesting.  Marina Rebeka sings Julia and one wouldn’t really identify her so much with French rep (certainly not this early) but she’s very stylish and her diction is good.  It’s a nice mix of vulnerability and fireiness.  Even the highly emotional airs, such as the Act 2 “Toi qui j’implore avec effroi” which is very dramatic, aren’t over-egged.  Aude Extrémo as La Grande Vestale is perhaps a more natural choice for her part.  It’s a role with a wide vocal range and demands a fair bit of heft.  Extrémo’s dark mezzo sounds very grand and fitting, but still essentially elegant.  Licinius goes to tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac, who has the low notes necessary and, again, a pleasing blend of drama and simplicity.  He blends well with high baritone Tassis Christoyannis, as Cinna.  The latter is very much a French specialist and the combo works nicely because there’s enough, but not too much, similarity between the voices for a good blend without it turning into duelling tenors. Nicolas Courjal is a proper French bass and is close to ideal as the Pontifex Maximus.  The chorus is the Flemish Radio Choir who do this sort of rep a lot and have singers who can sing the unusual haut contre line in the choruses.

The recording was made at La Seine Musicale (Riffx Studios), Paris in June 2022. It is available as a 2CD set or in FLAC (hi res and standard res) or MP3.  I listened to standard res files and they are fine.  As is usual with Bru Zane releases the documentation is sumptuous running to 114 pages of text (in English and French) and pictures.  The booklet includes the libretto, scholarly essays on the piece; its performance history and performance practice as well as an essay by Hector Berlioz and the original dedication to the Empress.

This is a really valuable release.  I would love to see this approach being taken more to these first half of the 19th century French operas.  I think done this way they would be excellent on our major stages and provide some much needed contrast from the perpetual “top ten”.


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