49. La vestale (Spontini) – REVISED

  • 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

SETTING: Rome, c. 269 B.C.

CHARACTERS: JULIA, a young Vestal Virgin (soprano); LICINIUS, her lover, a Roman general (tenor); CINNA, chief of the legions (tenor); LA GRANDE VESTALE [the Chief Vestal] (soprano); LE GRAND PONTIFE [the Pontifex Maximus] (bass); LE CHEF DES AUSPICES [Chief Augur] (bass); a CONSUL (bass)

ORIGINAL CAST: Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu as Julia; Étienne Lainez as Licinius ; François Lays as Cinna ; Marie-Thérèse Maillard as la Grande Vestale ; Duparc as le Chef des Auspices ; Martin as a Consul


Spontini has been called the most important opera composer between Gluck and Rossini, just as the Spontinian epoch is said to separate classicism from Wagnerism.

La Vestale is where grand opera begins: a scenic and musical spectacular, full of processions, ballets, hymns, and marches. It is an enormous work: bigger than almost anything that had appeared so far, fusing French tragédie lyrique with Italianate bel canto and daring orchestral and harmonic innovations. This is the international style of the 19th century.

Spontini himself was a cosmopolitan figure. Like so many of France’s great opera composers, he was Italian; like Meyerbeer a generation later, he composed masterpieces for Italy, France, and Germany. There had been Italian composers in Paris before, but, like Lully, they largely wrote to French taste; with La Vestale, we hear French words set to Italianate music. His heroic operas are models for Berlioz (who considered Spontini the genius of the century) and Wagner (who modelled Rienzi, with its “scenic and music display, its sensationalism and massive vehemence”, on La Vestale). But he remains a composer I respect and admire, rather than love.

Spontini began his career as a teenager: his first opera I puntigli delle donne (1796) was performed in Rome when he was only 17, and five more operas followed within the year. They are typical minor works of the time, composed in the style of Piccinni and Cimarosa. The youth rapidly became Naples’s favourite composer; after more successes in Palermo, Rome, and Venice, he left Italy to try his fortune in Paris in 1803.

Fortune at first eluded him. La petite maison (1804) was a disaster (hissed and booed, the curtain was lowered halfway through); Milton (1804) a mild success; and Julie (1805) flopped. The doors of the Paris theatres were apparently closed.

Then Jouy offered the libretto of La vestale to him. Méhul, Boieldieu, and Cherubini had already refused it as improper to music; Spontini seized on it. This grandiose Roman drama offered a powerful contrast between passionate love and religious fanaticism. Half-starved and desperate, the composer wrote it almost in a frenzy, we are told, working long nights by candlelight.

Mme Branchu as Julia

“Spontini was first and foremost a dramatic composer, whose inspiration grew with the importance of the situations and the strength of the passions which he had to depict,” Berlioz wrote. His genius erupted suddenly and prodigiously in La Vestale, “with its shower of burning ideas, its heart-felt tears, its stream of noble, touching, proud, and threatening melodies, its harmonies so full of warmth and colour, its modulations never before heard on the stage, its vital orchestral writing, its truth, its depth of expression, its wealth of great musical conceptions so naturally presented, imposed with such irresistible authority, cleaving so closely to the poet’s thought that one cannot imagine that the words which they fit could ever have had an independent existence.” (Berlioz, Evenings in the Orchestra, trans. C.R. Fortescue.)

Writing it was one thing; having it performed was another. The judges of the Académie impériale de musique objected to Spontini’s music; they complained that the style was extravagant and full of harmonic innovations; the orchestration was noisy, certain phrases were completely unintelligible, and the vocal line rested on the accompaniment like a fistful of hair on a bowl of soup. It was detestable; it was altogether unperformable.

But Spontini had one powerful ally: the Empress Josephine. She had taken him under her wing since the success of La finta filosofa (a commedia per musica first staged in Naples in 1799). Spontini appealed to his protectrix; she ordered that rehearsals start.

Then the orchestra played up. (So to speak.) Here were instrumental arrangements and colours that Gluck had never used. And so they revolted. This time, Spontini went right to the top; he appealed to Napoleon himself. He performed extracts from the opera at the Tuileries for the emperor. Napoleon listened, and approved.

“M. Spontini,” the ruler of France declared, “your opera will obtain a great success; it deserves to! Your opera abounds in new motifs; the declamation is true, and full of emotion; there are beautiful arias, effective duos, and a stirring finale. The marche de supplice is admirable.”

Spontini had to wait another year and endure the editing of two mediocre musicians, Persuis and Rey (who conducted the premiere), 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 was staged more than 300 times in Paris by mid-century. It played to packed houses in Naples for three years; and when it reached Berlin in 1811, the Germans hailed Spontini the worthy successor of Gluck.

Act I set design

The opera is set in Ancient Rome in the third century – a testament to the Napoleonic age’s fascination with the grandeur and glory of the empire. The general Licinius has just returned from subduing the Gauls; he will be awarded a triumph that day. But he is about to commit sacrilege: he loves Julia, a Vestal Virgin, keeper of the sacred flame. Before he went to war, her father, not approving of their love, forced her to take the veil. And now Julia is to crown the general in his triumph. Will passion or duty guide them? And how can they escape the punishment for their love? – burial alive for the ex-Virgin, flogging and public execution for her lover…

The splendid overture opens with a solemn andante (representing Rome or the Vestals?), and ends with a crescendo repeating the same phrase higher and faster, a device Rossini would appropriate.

Act I takes place in the Roman Forum just before dawn. This act is an hour and a quarter of exposition – but little happens. Licinius confesses his secret love to his friend Cinna in an andante aria (No. 1: ‘Dans le sein d’un ami fidèle’), and the two men agree to rescue Julia in a vigorous maestoso marziale duet (No. 2: ‘Quand l’amitié séconde mon courage’). As the sun rises, the Vestals sing their Hymne du Matin (No. 3: ‘Fille du ciel, éternelle Vesta’): a sweet, slightly syrupy larghetto chorus; Julia expresses her fears to the same melody.

The Grande Vestale warns Julia of the dangers of love in a stern allegro aria (No. 4: ‘L’amour est un monster barbare’); in her compassion for Julia in the andante section, we hear a forerunner of that other dolorous mother, Meyerbeer’s Fidès in Le Prophète.

Alone, Julia dreads and longs to see her former lover. Her phrase ‘O d’un pouvoir funeste invincible’ is bel canto; it could come from the lips of any one of Donizetti’s heroines. In her grand aria (No. 5: ‘Licinius, je vais donc te revoir’), she passes through resignation (larghetto), sexual fantasy (allegro), and reproach (agitato assai); she is joined by the offstage chorus of the triumphal march. The finale (No. 6) depicts that triumph; this gigantic number is one of the biggest pieces composed for an opera so far. Running to more than 100 pages in the vocal score, it consists of choruses jubilant and energetic, a rapt prayer to Vesta, games, wrestling matches and gladiatorial combats, prize givings, and six (!) ballets. Under cover of all this, as Julia crowns him, Licinius whispers he will abduct her that night.

If the Act I finale is excessive, then Act II is a crescendo, as Berlioz said. The act moves swiftly, always forward, with some of the best music in the opera. Julia dominates it from start to finish: the Vestal praying to resist her feelings; the desperate woman driven by love; the Romantic rebel defying religious authority and claiming death rather than submission; the tragic figure veiled in black.

The scene is the temple of Vesta, at night. It opens with the Vestals’ andante maestoso Hymne du Soir (No. 7: ‘Feu créateur, âme du monde’), like the best Mozart in its warmth and beauty.

Julia has been chosen to keep vigil over the flame that night – but she burns with another flame. Licinius is waiting outside. The scene consists of two arias – a prayer to control her passion (No. 8: ‘Toi que j’implore avec effroi’): the ritornello contains a lovely phrase on the horns; then wild with passion (No. 9: ‘Impitoyables dieux, suspendez la vengeance’), presto assai sempre agitato. It is magnificent; it is almost through-composed; the audience experience it as one sweep of music. ‘Come, adored mortal, I give you my life!’ she cries, and opens the door to admit her lover.

He declares his love (No. 10: ‘Les dieux prendront pitié); then comes the first great love duet of the nineteenth century (No. 11: ‘Quel trouble … quels transports…’), mounting to a climax, almost orgasmic in its rhythm. The couple swear their love on the altar – then turn to see that the flame has died. Julia is doomed.

Cinna arrives to help his friend abduct the girl; the trio (No. 12: ‘Ah! si je te suis chère prends pitié de tes jours’) has a messy start, but the finish is thrilling: singing a jagged, menacing chorus, a crowd nears the temple, demanding vengeance. The men escape, Licinius swearing to save Julia or die.

The finale (No. 13: ‘Sa bouche a prononcé la mort’) contains Julia’s exquisite andante espressivo prayer, ‘O des infortunés’. Like so much of her music, we can hear the tragic heroines of Donizetti or Bellini. The pontiff curses her to a furious orchestral outburst that thunders like doomsday; it is one of the earliest anathèmes in French opera, the root of climaxes in Halévy’s Juive and Donizetti’s Favorite. He then orders her to be stripped of her veils, and sentences her to death. The chorus is inappropriately jolly, but clearly the model for the Act III finale of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell.

Act III takes place on the field of execration, with the open tomb where Julia will be buried alive. Spontini’s inspiration ebbs at the start: neither Licinius’s aria (No. 17: ‘Non, non, je vis encore’) nor Cinna’s aria (No. 18: ‘Ce n’est plus le temps d’écouter’) is very interesting. Licinius implores the Grande Pontife to spare Julia; the confrontation duet (No. 16: ‘C’est à toi de trembler’) has an Italianate presto section (‘J’ai des armes’). The high point of the act is the Choeur and marche funéraire (No. 17: ‘Périsse la vestale impie’), a slow, ominous procession that begins offstage. It is the early example of a genre that will include the famous marches in La Juive and Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien (with its hundreds of choristers, and admired by Mahler); Berlioz must have remembered it when he wrote Les Troyens.

Julia’s veil is hung over the altar; if Vesta forgives, then the flame will consume the garment. She bids farewell in a short duet (No. 18: ‘Adieu, mes tendres soeurs’) and chorus (No. 19: ‘Vesta, nous t’implorons’). Julia slowly descends into the tomb, thinking of Licinius, whom she dare not name (No. 20: ‘Toi que je laisse’).

At that moment, Licinius’s men charge in to rescue her. He accuses himself, and draws his sword to stab himself; but Julia claims not to know him, and she goes into the tomb. The lictors close the door. The final (No. 21: ‘Ô terreur! Ô disgrace!’) is more dramatic than musically memorable. Licinius’s soldiers set to fight the mob – but the sky suddenly darkens, and lightning flickers across the sky. The soldiers, unable to see, are frozen with dread, and Licinius and Cinna descend into the tomb to rescue Julia. The back of the theatre opens, and the audience sees a volcano of fire, whence lightning escapes and ignites the priestess’s robe over the altar. The fire remains lit. Julia is released from her vows, and the scene changes to the temple of Venus. The opera ends with a dainty andantino chorus (‘Chants d’allégresse’), a reprise of the Act II duet, a dance, and three more ballets.

Many critics feel La Vestale 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”. It’s certainly a static, even simplistic opera, and the score is uneven. Nor is it as immediate and human as Gluck, or as engaging as Meyerbeer. But its finest moments are superb, and of more than simply historic interest.

La Vestale desperately needs a great recording.  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 suffers from rough sound and slow tempi; and Muti (1993)’s conducting is more vigorous, easily the listening choice, 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 Muti recording

La Vestale was followed by Fernand Cortez (1809), a propagandistic opera about the conqueror of the Aztecs. Spontini was the composer of Napoleon’s Empire; Raoul-Rochette argues that by his fierce and energetic spirit, vehement and impassioned, he embodied that age of movement, creativity, and glory. After the cold reception of Olympie (1819), however, Spontini vowed never to write for the French again.

He went to Germany, where he became Kapellmeister and opera director to Friedrich-Wilhelm II of Prussia, a position later held by Meyerbeer. There Spontini composed his last three operas: Nurmahal (1824), Alcidor (1825), and Agnes von Hohenstaufen (1829). “In France,” Raoul-Rochette writes, “Spontini had applied Italian melody to a dramatic action, and his song, always inspired by passion, rose to the heights of tragedy, while remaining an opera. In Germany, it was necessary to give the melody new forms, and to find musical inspirations for German lyrics – which no composer of his country had yet done, and which Gluck himself had not attempted.” The first two have long been forgotten, but some have hailed Hohenstaufen as the composer’s greatest work; through-composed and divided by scene rather than number, it is a model for Wagner’s Romantic operas.


WORKS CONSULTED

Hector Berlioz, “Spontini, sa vie, ses œuvres”, Journal des Débats, 12 February 1851

Hector Berlioz, Les Soirées de l’orchestre, 1852, English trans. Evenings in the Orchestra, C.R. Fortsecue, 1963, Penguin

Raoul-Rochette, “Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Spontini”, Académie des Beaux-Arts, 2 October 1852

Maurice Bouvier-Ajam, “Le tombeau de Spontini”, Le Ménestrel, 1936

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