Thursday 20 July 2023

Forget Callas and Italian bel canto: Christophe Rousset & les Talens Lyriques reveal the distinctive drama of Spontini's La Vestale

Spontini: La vestale; Marina Rebeka, Aude Extremo, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Tassis Christoyannis, Flemish Radio Choir, Les Talens Lyriques; Palazzetto Bru Zane
Spontini: La vestale; Marina Rebeka, Aude Extremo, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Tassis Christoyannis, Flemish Radio Choir, Les Talens Lyriques; Palazzetto Bru Zane
Reviewed 19 July 2023

A revelation, a recording that returns Spontini's masterwork to its original style and reveals the innovative drama underneath the 19th and 20th century acretions

In June 2024, the Paris Opera presents a new production of Spontini's La Vestale, the first time the company has performed the opera for nearly 150 years. Despite being premiered in Paris in 1807 (in French) and enjoying over 200 performances by 1830, La Vestale is known today, if at all, largely thanks to the popularity of the Italian version during the 20th century. Adopted almost as an honorary Italian bel canto opera, Rosa Ponselle sang it in Italian at the Met in the 1920s and in Florence in the 1930s, Maria Caniglia sang it in Rome in the 1940s and most notably, the 1954 production at La Scala with Maria Callas was the first opera staging by the film director Luchino Visconti. It was only in 1993 that the original French version was performed at La Scala. [read my article In search of Spontini]

So, before we start considering the opera, perhaps we should think about a few dates. Gluck's final tragédie lyrique premiered in Paris in 1779, with Antonio Salieri being regarded as his heir and producing Gluckian tragédie lyrique in the 1780s. Cherubini's Médée premiered in Paris in 1797, but this was not strictly a tragédie lyrique, it used spoken dialogue. La Vestale comes between the Gluckian tragédie lyrique and the 19th century French grand opera of Meyerbeer.  Effectively, Spontini took the dramatic reforms introduced by Cherubini and set about adapting Gluck's classical tragédie lyrique to the contemporary taste for melodrama, for grander spectacle. Spontini's Fernand Cortez (1809) would effectively invent the French grand opera genre avant la lettre (Auber's La muette de Portici is regarded as the first French grand opera, in 1828). 

Rossini's first major serious opera, Tancredi, billed as a melodramma eroico, came in 1813 by which time La Vestale had already been performed in Italy and in Vienna. As the 19th century developed, French opera left its early roots behind. Massenet took grand opera in an entirely different direction, and as Meyerbeer's popularity waned, Wagner's waxed in Paris. The continued toe-hold that bel canto had in Italy, even during the Verismo era, ensured that La Vestale remained on the fringes of repertoire, but performed in a style that was a long way from Spontini's intentionally Gluck-inspired passionate classicism.

The other composer we need to think about is Beethoven, there are clear lines between Beethoven's Leonora/Fidelio with its plot and libretto inspired by French opera (including Cherubini) and Spontini's La Vestale. Beethoven's Leonora premiered in 1805 with the revised version in 1806 (and the radical re-write as Fidelio in 1814). Certainly, Beethoven knew La Vestale and considered it a masterpiece, what about Spontini and Leonora/Fidelio? And as if to confuse things even further, in 1803 Beethoven (before Leonora/Fidelio) began an operatic project with Emanuel Schikaneder entitled Vestas Feuer about someone who pretends to be a Vestal Virgin and again the sacred flame is extinguished. It is probably only coincidence, reflecting a general fascination, but it remains a curious hint.

On this new disc from Palazzetto Bru Zane, Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Flemish Radio Choir with Marina Rebeka as Julia, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Licinius, Tassis Christoyannis as Cinna, Aude Extremo as la grande Vestale, with Nicolas Courjal and David Witczak.

The first thing to do is forget Callas. Stylistically there is too much distance between her performance and Spontini's original. If you want Callas, then you have to accept her on her own terms. Also, even more recent versions of La Vestale in French have erred in the way the male roles have been focused on the Italian tenor. Here we have a low tenor Licinius (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) and a high baritone Cinna (Tassis Christoyannis).

In style, the work is fascinatingly Janus-like, looking back to Gluck yet also forward, and much of the writing makes you think of late Mozart and Beethoven, not in sound exactly, Spontini is always himself, but in the active role the orchestra plays. The opera through composed, with plenty of highly dramatic orchestral recitatives which shade into the arias. There are few stand-along display arias, and instead we move fluidly between aria, accompanied recitative, duets, trios and accompanied recitative ensembles, plus of course hymns, choruses, marches and more. The dramatic thrust is quite slow, instead we have to revel in the way Spontini marshals his forces to create a richly textured whole. And all this is accompanied by a highly active and vividly rendered orchestra, full of rich colours and timbres. 

The result is highly dramatic and surprisingly varied, certainly it leaves Gluck's restrained classicism well behind. All of Julia's arias rather avoid the sense of bel canto showpieces, though each displays a combination of technical challenge with complex construction, the results are fascinating and her touchingly sung by Marina Rebeka. Rebeka is up for every virtuoso challenge, yet is notable for her speaking tone and wonderfully plangent line. Line is important here, it is too easy to fatally undermine the music by chopping the vocal line up for dramatic purposes, and Rebeka does not fall into this trap. She and tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac have a terrific, urgent duet in Act Two, whilst Rebeka's lovely final aria in the opera is preceded by a duet with Aude Extremo in which the two women's voices blend beautifully.

De Barbeyrac makes a strong Licinius, who comes out as noble and admirable. De Barbeyrac's final aria in Act Three is a terrific sturm und drang piece which leads into a wonderful sequence, tenor aria, highly dramatic sequence for de Barbeyrac and Tassis Christoyannis, the duet between Rebeka and Extremo, Rebeka's final touching aria and then the terrific blood and thunder finale. It is this sequence which shows how Spontini was adept at creating large-scale dramatic paragraphs which rise above the simple aria/recitative idea.

The two secondary roles are strongly cast, as La Grande Vestale, Aude Extremo has a fine, smokily dark voice whilst as Cinna, Tassis Christoyannis has a lovely flexible lyric baritone. Both impress both in their solo moments and the terrific support they provide the principals. Nicolas Courjal and David Witczak make up the solo roster with admirable support.

The Flemish Radio Choir are on fine form, and they get some highly dramatic music to sing. There are the usual hymns and marches, but there are also impulsively dramatic choruses and both the Act Two and Act Three finales give the chorus full rein. The Act Two finale, in particular, has a distinct whiff of Italian opera about it.

The orchestral role is a highly active one, far more than just supporting the vocal line. Rousset and his players really relish the dramatic opportunities Spontini gives them and Rousset encourages his players to bring out the distinctive timbres and tang of the period instruments, this is a performance full of character and drama.

If we go into La vestale thinking Callas and Italian bel canto, then we will mistake the style. Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques have already recorded Salieri's three tragédie lyrique from the 1780s and so this recording makes a logical extension, continuing the exploration of the post-Gluck development of the genre. It also means that they have the style in their bones, the fascinating combination of Romanticism and Classicism, with a whiff of Sturm und Drang thrown in too. It is perhaps too much to hope for that someone might encourage these same performers back in the studio to give us a truly dramatic and stylistically appropriate recording of Cherubini's Médée 

On disc, La Vestale has not really done very well. La Callas, of course, looms large with her 1954 recording and others have recorded it in Italian. It did not get into French on disc until 1991 with Rosalind Plowright and Francisco Araiza conducted by Gustav Kuhn, and that 1993 La Scala production, conducted by Riccardo Muti with Karen Huffstodt in the title role also made it to disc. This was the last time the opera had a major recording, and frankly neither of these French versions is recommendable. Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle d'Harmonie performed with Ermonela Jaho in the title role in a staging at the Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2013 (which transferred to Brussels in 2015 with different forces), but that does not seem to have made it on to disc, though it was streamed on Medici TV.

As a recommendation for a decent modern recording of opera, this recording wins hands down but more than that, it is a complete revelation. I do hope that it encourages others to explore Spontini's La Vestale, giving the work the exposure and the stylistic attention to detail that it needs.

Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) - La Vestale (1807) [132:03]
Marina Rebeka - Julia
Stanislas de Barbeyrac - Licinius
Tassis Christoyannis - Cinna
Aude Extremo - La Grande Vestale
Nicolas Courjal - Le Souverain Pontif
David Witczak - Un Consul/ Chef des Aruspices
Flemish Radio Choir
Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset (conductor)
Recorded 17 to 20 June 2022, Riffx Studios de la Seine Musicale, Paris
PALAZZETTO BRU ZANE BZ1051 2CDs [67.38, 64.25]

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