La vestale, Wexford Festival
By Andrew Clark
Published: October 25 2004 03:00 | Last updated: October 25 2004 03:00
The compacting of operatic history into a performable repertoire leads us to make all kinds of false assumptions. One is that Italian opera somehow made an effortless jump from Rossini's last opera in 1829 to Verdi's first success in 1842.
Saverio Mercadante's La vestale (1840), this year's runaway winner at Wexford, shows it wasn't that easy. Sensing that the florid early 19th-century style had outlived its usefulness, Mercadante tried to redefine the rules: simpler singing lines, no cabalettas, a narrower tessitura.
Much of this anticipates what Verdi did three decades later in Aida. But where Mercadante tried gently to untie the thong of bel canto convention, Verdi ripped it off. Mercadante also made the mistake of not giving his vestal virgin enough solos.
That's why his version of La vestale never enjoyed the success of Spontini's version, written 30 years earlier. But without Mercadante's reforming ideas, Verdi would not have been Verdi.
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