Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
Composer: Gaspare Spontini
Libretto: Étienne de Jouy
First performed: Théâtre de l’Opéra (Salle Montansier), Paris, 15 December 1807, conducted by Jean-Baptiste Rey
“M. Spontini,” declared Napoleon, “your opera will obtain a great success; it deserves it. Your opera abounds in new motifs; the declamation is true, and agrees with the musical emotion; beautiful arias, effective duos, a stirring finale; the marche de supplice is admirable.”
The Italian composer owed Napoleon much. Without the Emperor’s command, and Josephine’s wish, the opera would never have been produced. The jury of the Opéra found its style eccentric, the harmony defective, the orchestration noisy, certain phrases completely unintelligible, while the vocal line rested on the accompaniment like a fistful of hair on a bowl of soup.
Spontini had to endure the editing of two mediocre musicians, Persuis and Rey, before the opera could be staged – but the work was, as Napoleon predicted, a success. The Institut de France declared it the best lyrical work of the decade; it received nearly 100 consecutive performances, and 200 performances by 1830.
Wagner and Berlioz admired the opera. “He was,” Berlioz wrote, “first and foremost, a dramatic composer, whose inspiration grew with the importance of the situations, with the warmth of the emotions, with the violence of the passions he depicted… From these Spontini’s prodigious and sudden explosion of genius in La Vestale, that torrent of ardent ideas; those heart-felt tears; that stream of melodies, noble, touching, proud, and menacing; those warmly coloured harmonies; those unheard-of modulations; that young orchestra armed in the antique manner; and that truth, that deepness in the expression and that wealth of great musical images, imposed with magisterial authority, so naturally embracing the poet’s thought with such force that one cannot conceive that they could ever be separated from the words to which they have been adapted.”
Rome, c. 269 B.C. Julia became a Vestal Virgin, guardians of the sacred flame of Vesta, after she believed her lover, the general Licinius, died in battle. Licinius returns in triumph, and Julia is chosen to crown him with laurels. Licinius intends to abduct Julia that night. She prays to Vesta to resist temptation…
but yields to him in the temple of Vesta. The sacred flame dies out, and Licinius flees. The Pontifex Maximus sentences Julia to death (burial alive) for licentiousness, but she refuses to name her lover.
A solemn march accompanies the procession to the execution ground.
Julia bids farewell to the other vestals, and prepares to die.
At the last moment, a lightning bolt relights the sacred flame. The Pontifex and Chief Vestal interpret this as an omen, and free Julia, who marries her Licinius.
La Vestale is historically important, and acclaimed a masterpiece when it was first produced, but it’s more difficult for a modern audience to enjoy it.
For many, it’s a cornerstone, long since buried: an early model of French grand opera, with processions and ballets – but primitive compared to Rossini, Auber, Meyerbeer, or Halévy.
Many critics feel it doesn’t live up to its reputation; Kirill thought it lacked musical inspiration and refinement, while David LeMarrec finds the music mediocre, and a long way from Spontini’s best. MusicWeb International called one performance “an evening of narcoleptic numbness”.
My own feelings are mixed; it’s a static opera, with beautiful passages. Too often, La Vestale can seem humdrum: three hours of andante maestoso, with a thin story. On the whole, I enjoy Fernand Cortez more.
What it really needs is a great recording to show just why Berlioz, Wagner, and Meyerbeer liked it. Unfortunately, all are flawed. Votto (1954) has a powerhouse performance by Maria Callas, but is in badly distorted mono, and sung in Italian. Norrington (1976) is the most complete, has a Francophone cast, but rough sound; and Muti (1993)’s conducting is more vigorous, but the pronunciation is wonky. I haven’t heard Gustav Kuhn’s recording with Rosalind Plowright and Francisco Araiza; the Amazon reviewer finds it “unengaging”, while an online acquaintance rather likes it.
The only video is a misguided modern-dress performance:
Maria Callas (Giulia), Ebe Stignani (Gran Vestale), Franco Corelli (Licinius), Enzo Sordello (Cinna), and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Grande Sacerdote), with the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Antonino Votto. Milan, 1954.
Michèle Le Bris (Julia), Nadine Denize (Grande Vestale), Robert Dumé (Licinius), Claude Meloni (Cinna), and Jacques Mars (le Souveraine Pontife), with the Orchestre and Chœur Lyrique de l’O.R.T.F., conducted by Roger Norrington, Paris 1976. CD: Mitridate «Ponto» PO 1038 (+excerpts with Maria Casula 1977) .
Rosalind Plowright (Julia), Gisella Pasino (La Grande Vestale), Francisco Araiza (Licinius), Pierre Lefebre (Cinna), Arturo Cauli (Le Souveraine Pontife), with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the Chor des Bayerisches Rundfunks, conducted by Gustav Kuhn. 1991. CD: Orfeo C 256 922 H.
Karen Huffstodt (Julia), Denyce Graves (la Grande Vestale), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Licinius), J. Patrick Rafferty (Cinna), and Dimitri Kavrakos (le Souveraine Pontife), with the Teatro Alla Scala Orchestra & Chorus, conducted by Riccardo Muti. Milan, 1993. CD: Sony Classical S3K 66357.