Gaspare Spontini - La Vestale
Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2013
Jérémie Rhorer, Eric Lacascade, Ermonela Jaho, Andrew Richards, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Jean-François Borras, Konstantin Gorny
Medici.tv, France TV - Culturebox Internet streaming
23 October 2013
Written in 1807 and highly acclaimed at the time - admired even by the Emperor Napoleon - Gaspare Spontini's La Vestale has all but disappeared from the opera repertoire over the last century. Judging from the terrific performance of this rare opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, broadcast live on French television and available via internet streaming, its fall from grace has little to do with the quality of the work itself. Perhaps, like much of Meyerbeer, Spontini's formal and classical approach now feels a little old-fashioned and it would seem to require singers of a particular style and distinction that there are few enough capable of meeting its demands. All the more impressive then that the efforts of director Eric Lascade and conductor Jérémie Rhorer to revitalise the theatrical and musical aspects of the work benefit from a fine performance of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the key role of Julia.
Certainly La Vestale is very much classical work of grand formality that verges on being rather stuffy and academic by today's standards. Set in Roman antiquity in 269 BC, there's not a great deal to the plot, which revolves around the now very familiar operatic situation of a doomed love affair and a struggle between that great love and one's duty. Essentially, the romantic melodrama occurs when the commander Licinius returns in triumph from the campaigns in Gaul to find that his beloved Julia has been inducted into the cult of Vesta. Licinius however sneaks into the temple of Vesta with a plan to take her away, but they are discovered when Julia lets the sacred flame burn out. The temple and her purity having been so desecrated, Julia is condemned to be buried alive, only to be reprieved at the last minute when the flame miraculously sparks back into life during an attack by Licinius's men.
Much of the anguish of the situations in La Vestale is inevitably brought out through singing that is in the solemn declamatory mode, even if there is great beauty and flourishes of colour in Spontini's musical palette. The classical structure of the plot that involves a simple love story caught up in the exigencies of the political and religious establishment is moreover rounded out by all the conventional arrangements for marches, ceremonies, ballets, prayers and choruses in a way that points towards the excesses of Grand Opéra. Like Aida, which shares many elements of La Vestale's structure and plot, the human love story achieves a grander dimension if you have a composer capable of raising it to those necessary heights and singers capable of meeting them.
It's significant then that the last time this opera was popular, and the main reason why it is even known at all today, is because of Maria Callas. La Vestale requires a soprano of considerable personality and ability to hold it together centrally and bring it fully to life. Ermonela Jaho (who will be familiar from the Royal Opera House's award-winning production of Il Trittico singing Puccini's Suor Angelica) has quite a challenge on her hands and she not only proves to be more than capable, but also engaging and in possession of a strong expressive voice. There's a difference between grandstanding and dominating the role of Julia and Jaho gets the character perfectly, realising that she is a young innocent girl, who is proud, defiant and self-sacrificing. The character and the opera come to life through this performance.
Julia however also needs to be capable of standing up to the High Priestess, La Grande Vestale, which is quite a challenge when it's played with a singer of force and character as Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Both women come out of their encounters well, and prove to be the driving force and rationale behind the work. More so in this production, as it seems the High Priestess, despite her position and her protestations of love being a "barbarous monster", seems to take pity on Julia's predicament and, rather than a bolt of lightning striking Julia's veil, it seems that the High Priestess has a sympathetic hand in the "divine intervention" of the sacred flame being reignited. The masculine roles are less challenging, but Andrew Richards is a fine lyrical Licinius who is never declamatory, even in the récit. He's well supported by Jean-François Borras as Cinna, while Konstantin Gorny makes the most of the unyielding Pontifex Maximus.
The setting of the production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is relatively simple, sketching in the location and period without going overboard on details. We're not quite at Grand Opéra stage yet, and there's still a Gluck-like elegance and simplicity in the music in the dramatic drive of the work and the production adheres to that arrangement with plain wooden tables, platforms and columns. There's quite enough passionate outpourings of emotion in the vocal exchanges and when you've got a cast capable of delivering it, you don't need all the accoutrements The stage direction also caters for this, never letting the performance get bogged down in static declamation, allowing the singers to pace the stage and throw those furious emotions up at the Gods, which is literally who they are often directed towards.
Jérémie Rhorer keeps a similarly tight rein on the musical side of things, excising the Act I ballet section, trimming back the sung recitative where possible and focussing on the dramatic content that is so wonderfully scored by Spontini. Who would have thought that there'd be so much vitality in such an unfashionable and rarely performed work? In every respect the production does great service to La Vestale, truly highlighting the qualities of the work and even finding humour in the musical brightness of the obligatory happy ending, with everyone running Benny Hill-style to catch-up with the happy couple and join them in their heavenly-ordained celebrations. As La Grande Vestale demonstrates however, a bit of helpful and sympathetic intervention can be invaluable.
Broadcast on the 23rd October 2013, Spontini's La Vestale at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées can be viewed for free via Internet Streaming from the Medici.tv and the France TV Culturebox web sites. The opera is in French without subtitles.