Spontini La Vestale Bru Zane

Gaspare Spontini (1774-1850) 
La Vestale (1807) 
Maria Rebeka (soprano) – Julia 
Stanislas de Barbeyrac (tenor) – Licinius 
Tassis Christoyannis (baritone) – Cinna 
Nicolas Courjal (bass) – Le Souverain Pontife
Aude Extrémo (mezzo) – La Grande Vestale 
David Witzack (bass) – Un Consule/Le Chef des Aruspices 
Flemish Radio Choir; Les Talens Lyriques/Christophe Rousset
rec 2022, Riffx Studios, La Seine Musicale, Paris
Book contains articles and libretto in French with English translations.
Bru Zane BZ1051 [2 CDs: 132]

One of the interestingl facts about Gaspare Spontini’s opera La Vestale is that, had it not been for the patronage and influence of the Empress Josephine Bonaparte, the opera likely would never have made it to its premiere at the Académie Impériale de Musique in 1807. While Josephine’s power was already beginning to wane at that point, she still wielded enough influence to put an end to the various cabals that had formed among the singers and musicians against the foreigner Spontini and his “difficult” music.  Spontini had been the Empress’ court composer since 1805; he remained her friend until her death in 1814, and ultimately ended up dedicating the opera to her. 

La Vestale was the opera which cemented Spontini’s position as the premier composer of the new French republic. It is more than just a work that glorifies the aims of that regime. It is also one of those rare operas that, like the two-faced god Janus, looks back to the tragédies lyrique but also forward to the style of Berlioz and his contemporaries. 

This new recording from the Bru Zane label is the first one to appear which uses period instruments.  The benefit of using a period orchestra is immediately apparent with the first chords of the overture. Apart from one awful moment which I will come to, the separated textures of the period orchestra reveal again and again the unique sounds of Spontini’s score. Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques  bring their customary urgency and animated style to this rather stately opera, transforming it into a true music drama of classical proportions. The blunt force with which they attack the opening chords of the overture almost knocks one onto the floor.  In the recitatives, Rousset jump starts his soloists to sing them so that they burst with a real dramatic pulse.  The orchestra responds magnificently to his leadership, especially for the brass section who snarl magnificently. The only disappointment comes in the plaintive horn solo that opens the most famous aria “Toi que j’implore avec effroi “(Tu che invoco in the Italian version). The antique valveless French horn sounds lumpy and downright comical as it tries to negotiate the notes, unfortunately destroying the mood. This is one case where the modern instrument is a definite improvement over what the audience heard at the premiere.

The central role of Julia has attracted some famous names in the 20th Century, Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, and Renata Scotto among them.  Marina Rebeka takes on the role of the vestal virgin with some large shoes to fill. On the whole she does so quite admirably. Her breath control is very impressive as she draws out the long legato lines of several of her arias, also demonstrating her superlative control of dynamics. She does beautiful things in the aria “Toi que j’implore avec effroi “ and in the concluding  “Impitoyables dieux” which she uniquely begins as an interior plea before expanding to a more externalized conclusion to the scene. She certainly embodies the role of Julia with passion and eventually, resignation. This is her finest assumption yet on CD, I think due in part to the rapport she obviously finds with Rousset. Her voice doesn’t quite possess that  individuality of timbre that can be heard on the live recordings of Callas (review) or Scotto on Meldoram, she still far surpasses her main rivals, Rosalind Plowright on Orfeo, and Karen Huffstodt on Sony’s version with Muti.

The Roman hero Licinius, who causes Julia to break her vow has not been terribly successful on any previous recording, even Franco Corelli on Callas’s live recording is completely the wrong vocal type for the role. Rousset’s casting here has permanently silenced any further debate as to whether the role should be sung by a tenor or a baritone.  Stanislas de Barbeyrac, whose impressive name sounds as if he could be descended from one of Napoleon’s generals, fits the bill admirably. He is a tenor who is truly comfortable singing in his lowest range. Musically speaking, the important point is that Spontini wanted Licinius and Cinna, his friend and aide-d- camp, should sound like brothers, but not too much so. This is where De Barbeyrac and baritone, Tassis Christoyannis as Cinna, really score their musical points, mainly because most of their stage time is occupied in duets which are sung mostly in unison. The two gentlemen’s voices blend beautifully together but are clearly different which adds to the heroic effect that Spontini  intended. Without a doubt De Barbeyrac is the Licinius of choice among them all.

The Grande Vestale is a tough character for any singer to get a handle on. Usually she comes across as a rule spouting foghorn. Aude Extrémo achieves the impossible by breathing life into the role. Her smooth yet pungent sound is quite remarkable and her word pointing of each utterance is a joy to encounter.  She had already impressed me with her contribution to the recent Blu-ray release of Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne (review); here she expands that impression to show what a major artist she has become.  She outclasses all of her rivals including the legendary Ebe Stignani on Votto’s live recording. The other figure of authority is the Pontifex maximus, vividly sung by Nicolas Courjal. This singer excels in articulating the text so well that one doesn’t need to look at the libretto. While his is a uniquely authoritative portrayal, I do detect a slight loosening of his tone on sustained notes.  One can hear in Dmitri Kavrakos’ voice on the alternative Sony recording a bass with a beautiful rich-sounding tone but overall he doesn’t make nearly the impression that Courjal does here.

The recording engineers have produced a fine analytical sound which keeps the orchestra under a microscope and they stand up well to that level of examination. The excellent Flemish Radio chorus sound almost like a native French choir and they have a lot of music to sing in this opera. The sole disappointment on this recording is that for some reason the producers chose not to record their offstage music from a distance. In both the Second and Third Acts the chorus has extended music that needs to sound from afar. By having the chorus raging in our ears too early, before they actually appear on stage, it compromises the cumulative building of tension and blunts the impact, particularly in the case of the Second Act Finale. I don’t wish to make too much of this as It is still very fine, had they observed the sonic perspectives, the impact would have been overwhelming.

It would have been nice if Rousset had recorded the extended ballet music from the First and Third Acts, perhaps as an appendix on the recording, but it would have meant including an extra CD, and the music is not a serious loss. If a listener wants to experience the ballets in their proper places, Riccardo Muti included it on his Sony recording which is still relatively easy to find.

This release outclasses its rivals in every way, and with the excellence of the articles included in the bound book format, this is a deluxe acquisition. Rousset‘s La Vestale is an achievement at the same level as much as his recording of Antonio Salieri’s Les Danaïdes on the same label in 2015. This will certainly be among my selections for Recordings of the Year. The Bru Zane edition has been limited to 6000, one would be well advised to grab a copy while one can.

Mike Parr

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