United States Gasparo Spontini, La Vestale: Soloists, Cercle de l’Harmonie, Chœur Aedes, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (medici.tv broadcast), Paris. 23.10.2013 (RDA)
During the reign of Napoleon, Gasparo Spontini’s La Vestale premiered in Paris in 1807, but after hundreds of performances, the work fell out of favor. But in 1954 it was rediscovered and revived for Maria Callas, in a legendary production directed by Luchino Visconti.
Spontini followed closely in Gluck’s footsteps, eventually finding his own voice in this opera, his most notable work and a precursor to the early Romanticism of Berlioz and Meyerbeer.
The plot deals with the love affair of Roman general Licinius and the vestal priestess Julia, who is sentenced to be buried alive for breaking her vow of chastity. A deus ex machina miracle provides a happy ending with the impending marriage of the two lovers.
In this coproduction by the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Théâtre de la Monnaie, (broadcast on medici.tv on October 23), the musical direction by Jérémie Rhorer and the staging by Eric Lacascade would not suffice to make this a worthwhile viewing choice—unless a major singer were on hand to sing the daunting central role of Julia. But Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho surpassed expectations. Surrounded by a strong cast of young and veteran singers, she carried the weight of the opera on her shoulders, with stalwart support by tenor Andrew Richards, veteran mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria Monzon, tenor Jean-François Borras and bass Konstantin Gorny.
The modern-dress production is handsome and does well by resisting any Regietheater excesses, hewing close to the spirit, if not the letter of Spontini’s librettist, Étienne de Jouy. Their work is filmed with lovely care by film director Christian Leblé. Director Eric Lacascade has surrounded himself with a fine design team: set designer Emmanuel Clolus, costume designer Marguerite Bordat and lighting designer Philippe Berthomé.
The musical forces include the instrumentalists of the Cercle de l’Harmonie and the singers of Chœur Aedes, doing superb work under the baton of maestro Rhorer.
Soprano Ermonela Jaho excels in four complex arias, “Licinius je vais donc te revoir,” “Suspendez la vengeance, Impitoyables dieux,” “Ô des infortunés déesse tutélaire,” and “De mon fatal amour, la flamme dévorante.” She is a bel canto stylist with plenty of dramatic power, acting skills and a silvery timbre up and down her vocal compass.
Not only is the story of La Vestale remarkably similar to that of Bellini’s Norma, but Madame Jaho’s vocal accomplishments point in the direction of the title role of Bellini’s masterwork in the not too-distant future. Meanwhile, we are thankful to have such a fine singer on call to help unearth gems like this obscure—but most interesting—work by an equally obscure composer.
Rafael de Acha