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Gasparo Spontini: La Vestale
29 Oct 2006

SPONTINI: La Vestale

Though this La Vestale is sung in its original French, it strikes me as rather odd that the contents in the sleeve notes nevertheless still employs the Italian names Licinio and Giulia.

Gasparo Spontini: La Vestale

Michèle Le Bris (Julia), Nasine Denize (Grande Vestale), Robert Dumét (Licinius), Claude Méloni (Cinna), Jacques Mars (Grand Pontife), Chef des Aruspices (N.N.), Consul (N.N.). Orchestre Radio-Lyrique et Choeurs de la RTF conducted by Roger Norrington. Recorded in Paris 1976.

Ponto PO-1038 [2CDs]

$11.98  Click to buy

And another oddity is the fact that nobody at Ponto took the pains to look around and give us the names of the singers in two small parts.

And now that’s out of the way, I immediately admit I was very much surprised by the performance. Nowadays we are so used to listening to the famous Italian version, be it complete with Callas and Corelli in the live La Scala recording or Rosa Ponselle in the big aria, we take the Italian version for granted. The original French however makes for quite a musical difference. Julian Budden succinctly summed them up while discussing the Italian translation of Verdi’s Vêpres Siciliennes: “The fact is that when faced with the new metres and more flexible prosody of French verse the Italian translator of that time still tended to reach for the nearest of the standard Italian metres. ‘Comble de misère’ is a six-syllable line with a strong accent at the beginning; the translator renders it as ‘Parola fatale’, orthodox Italian with the accent firmly on the second syllable. As a result it sits very awkwardly on the musical phrase. Examples of this fault can be found in all translations of Italian opera up till the time when the Italians themselves extended their system of metres (Zanardini’s translations in Don Carlos are on the whole much better).”

A comparison of the best known piece of La Vestale indeed leads to the same conclusion : ‘Toi, que j’implore’ sounds far more as heart-felt begging than the harsher sounds of ‘Tu che invoco’. As a result I found this performance to be more restrained, lighter, more classical than the Italian version which always reminds me as a lesser version of Fanciulla del West where everybody marks time for a deus-ex-machina (be it Minnie or a flash from the sky as in La Vestale) to save the situation and send everybody home satisfied with the bliss of the new couple.

Of course much depends on the kind of voices and, though the singers are not of the powerhouse variety we know from some Italian versions, they are an attractive lot indeed. Michèle Le Bris sings the title role. She was one of the last generation of French singers who rarely left France and was used to singing all her Italian roles in her own language. Some will know her from her Barcelona performances of La Juive with Tucker. She made very fine highlight recordings of Le Trouvère and Un Bal Masqué with Tony Poncet. The voice is agreeable, agile and individually coloured and one is struck by her impeccable legato and by the sureness of attack on all notes. Of course this can be expected from a singer who was a fine Marguerite in Faust and a wonderful Sylva Varescu in Kalman’s Gypsy Princess as well. She may not be Callas but her ‘Toi, que j’implore’ gives a wonderful sense of young almost innocent teenage love which is probably nearer to a young vestal virgin than the American soprano’s far riper and tragic sound.

Le Bris is very ably partnered by Nadine Denize. She too restricted most of her performances to La France and her rich high mezzo is a delight.

With my customary modesty I was sure I knew every tenor singing in France from the fifties till the seventies; especially as I belong to that kind of opera lovers who delight in cast reading in obscure old magazines. Well, I have to admit I never heard of Robert Dumét whose only appearance I could trace was in a French Moïse. His is a baritonal tenor very well suited to the role.

Bass Jacques Mars was a stalwart of many fine radio performances. He sings an impressive High Priest.

Roger Norrington conducts in the same vein the singers use: keeping his orchestra light and getting right the flow of the music. His tempi are marginally slower and more relaxed than Votto’s in the La Scala version and that’s for the better. Spontini is often conducted too fast and the music sounds rushed, so that one tires quickly. With Norrington’s marginally slower beat one misses nothing of the excitement and gains a lot in depth. The sound is fine as this was probably a radio performance.

The bonus is an interesting one as recordings of Maria Casula are rather rare. Her's is the more traditional Italian spinto: warm, well rounded, with a nice Leontyne Price-sound to it, while it is clear from the first syllable she has no idea what French pronunciation is about.

Jan Neckers


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