Spontini La Vestale Bru Zane

Gaspare Spontini (1774-1850) 
La Vestale
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]

La vestale is an opera which was admired and esteemed by such as Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner, but I have never warmed to the music and to my ears it has remained stubbornly resistant to memorability. It was supposedly heavily influenced by Gluck, who is among my favourite operatic composers, but I have to say that I do not really hear that, despite Spontini’s obvious skill and the clear pretensions of the music to dramatic impact.

Recent discussions of recordings of La vestale on the Message Board, including Stephen Wells comprehensive posting, prompted me first to test my hitherto lukewarm response first by revisiting the vintage mono Cetra version in Italian from 1951, then by becoming acquainted with this new Bru Zane issue in order to add my own review of it to Mike’s Parr’s. Following his endorsement of it, I was curious to see if I could be sufficiently converted to esteem it more highly, as I had never found much interest in it and had in a previous thread even called it “a bore”; cursory acquaintance with the live Callas/Corelli recording of the production by Visconti, conducted by Votto at La Scala in 1954, had not changed that, as despite the best efforts of Warner’s Art et Son to clean up the scratchy, distorted sound, it remains something of an aural trial, disqualifying it for all but dedicated Callas fans.  I refer you to my colleague Jonathan Woolf’s review of that performance and note that he, too, while acknowledging its historical significance and stylistic innovation, also observes that it contains “paragraphs of pretty numbing tedium.” 

Subsequent recordings have not, by all accounts, been very successful but this latest offers the full score – thirteen minutes more music than the cut Cetra Italian version. The overture immediately brings Cherubini to mind and indeed much of the subsequent music is redolent of his style at his best, as in Medea – perhaps sub-Cherubini, if that is not being too unkind. Detectible too, are many elements prefiguring Bellini’s Norma, a link intensified by some plot similarities – except this is more simplistic and has a happy ending. I still find that there are some banal patches in the music but the impact of Spontini’s score certainly comes across much more strongly in such full, clean, clear digital sound in combination with the raw, vibrant original instruments of Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques. 

Furthermore, much of the singing here is admirable. We first hear two pleasing voices in Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s robust, low tenor and the light, supple baritone of Tassis Christoyannis. The intermittent lisp of the former is slightly distracting – although Corelli, too, had that and grew out of it – but the latter sounds suitably youthful despite being in his mid-fifties and the two singers certainly sound quite similar and fraternal, blending well. Aude Extrémo has a tough, resinous mezzo with plenty of contralto heft and she inflects the text in a spirited fashion investing it with life and spirit, despite the two-dimensional nature of the role of the La Grande Vestale. The chorus is likewise wholly committed, often singing out in full voiced fashion, so it’s a pity that their music is often the least interesting. Rousset conducts with great rhythmic flexibility and invigorating attack.

However, by no means everything here is perfect. As MP remarks, the flatulent valveless horns are simply inadequate to encompass the demands the music makes upon them and parp away ineffectually, although I personally am less exercised by that inadequacy. Strangely, too, perhaps the least individual voice here is that of the eponymous Vestale herself. Marina Rebeka is entirely competent but as I remarked in my reviews of her recital albums Spirito and Amor fatale, there is to her singing a certain faceless quality, both tonally and interpretatively, especially compared with her illustrious predecessors. When all is said and done, she does not have a particularly beautiful voice, especially when it is under pressure. Nonetheless, her diction and the richness of her production in the middle of her voice have improved since she recorded those albums five years previously; top notes are fuller and her French is now fully comprehensible – which it was not in the Rossini recital.  Despite some edginess in her high notes and an element of bottled tone, her delivery of her two big set pieces, “Toi que j’implore” and “O des infortunés déesse tutélaire”, is quite pleasing  – until, that is, one compares her with those sung in Italian by Callas, who injects so much more depth and variety of feeling into the music, as well deploying her portamento, fioriture and lower register more tellingly and to much more moving effect. The same is true of Maria Vitale on Cetra, who may be a lesser artist than Callas but knows all the Old School tricks and is considerably more engaging – and that is most certainly true of the divine Rosa Ponselle in her recordings of those arias. Finally, the vibrato of Nicolas Courjal’s bass has loosened alarmingly since I last heard him in the 2017 recording of Les Troyens; even then I found him to be “unsteady and woolly” and here he is now worse: gravelly, wobbly and unlovely.

On balance, while this new account does indeed dispose me more favourably towards Spontini’s music, I still hear blank spots, such as the frantic passage following “Toi que j’implore”, which is replete with sound and fury but melodically impoverished. Likewise, the ensuing Act II Scene iii duet for Giulia and Licinio bustles along busily without ever striking a vein of lyrical gold and unfortunately the rush and commotion of its conclusion tend to bring out the acidity of Rebeka’s tone. Despite some highlights like the duet between Giulia and La Grande Vestale, Act III is anticlimactic; Spontini seems by then largely to have exhausted his inspiration and the final chorus is typically trite and mundane.

The competition in the field of recordings in French is not strong, however, so this still becomes the best choice for that version – but there is still the option of the old recording in Italian which, despite being over seventy years old, is in clean, forward, slightly harsh mono, typical of the many Cetra recordings of radio broadcasts in front of live audiences in the early 50s and as such provides much more enjoyable sound than Callas’ account. Stephen remarks that the singers are largely forgotten today except by aficionados but my goodness these are voices of real quality. If anyone is better remembered, it is Bulgarian Elena Nicolai, who had a grand, stately mezzo-soprano, recorded an excellent Santuzza with Mario Del Monaco, and sang Eboli in the famous 1954 EMI studio recording of Don Carlo. However, dramatic soprano Maria Vitale is equally imposing; she made several recordings of earlier Verdi operas for Cetra. She has two major arias in Act II, also recorded by Callas and Rosa Ponselle: “Tu che invoco” and “O Nume tutelar” and wraps her big, smoky voice around them impressively, even if I still find the music somewhat conventional, if not banal. I have recently been moaning about how many modern singers have obtrusive vibratos; hers is very apparent but not grating, because it is integrated within a properly registered voice that does not bleat or pulse.  She has the kind of power and “diva” presence that Callas brought to bear on the work and is crucial to its success, as the tenor role is of secondary importance. The career of tenor Renato Gavarini included international appearances but centred on Italian houses, including La Scala, singing Alceste with Callas; he, too, gave many performances for RAI but made no commercial recordings, which is a pity, as he has a powerful, attractive voice. The three supporting cast members are fine and the vastly experienced Previtali conducts expertly, bestowing grace, dignity and power upon the stately music. If you are curious about this work, I would suggest that this is still the best starting point unless you can tolerate the abysmal sound of the live Callas recording – but I cannot in all conscious promise that you will discover a neglected masterpiece, for all that Spontini’s contemporaries and successors esteemed it. Tastes and sensibilities change.

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Mike Parr (July 2023)

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