Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

ETO Autumn 2020 Season Announcement: Lyric Solitude

English Touring Opera are delighted to announce a season of lyric monodramas to tour nationally from October to December. The season features music for solo singer and piano by Argento, Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich with a bold and inventive approach to making opera during social distancing.

Love, always: Chanticleer, Live from London … via San Francisco

This tenth of ten Live from London concerts was in fact a recorded live performance from California. It was no less enjoyable for that, and it was also uplifting to learn that this wasn’t in fact the ‘last’ LfL event that we will be able to enjoy, courtesy of VOCES8 and their fellow vocal ensembles (more below …).

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

A wonderful Wigmore Hall debut by Elizabeth Llewellyn

Evidently, face masks don’t stifle appreciative “Bravo!”s. And, reducing audience numbers doesn’t lower the volume of such acclamations. For, the audience at Wigmore Hall gave soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and pianist Simon Lepper a greatly deserved warm reception and hearty response following this lunchtime recital of late-Romantic song.

The Sixteen: Music for Reflection, live from Kings Place

For this week’s Live from London vocal recital we moved from the home of VOCES8, St Anne and St Agnes in the City of London, to Kings Place, where The Sixteen - who have been associate artists at the venue for some time - presented a programme of music and words bound together by the theme of ‘reflection’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny explore Dowland's directness and darkness at Hatfield House

'Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’

Paradise Lost: Tête-à-Tête 2020

‘And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven … that old serpent … Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.’

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

‘Where All Roses Go’: Apollo5, Live from London

‘Love’ was the theme for this Live from London performance by Apollo5. Given the complexity and diversity of that human emotion, and Apollo5’s reputation for versatility and diverse repertoire, ranging from Renaissance choral music to jazz, from contemporary classical works to popular song, it was no surprise that their programme spanned 500 years and several musical styles.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields 're-connect'

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields have titled their autumn series of eight concerts - which are taking place at 5pm and 7.30pm on two Saturdays each month at their home venue in Trafalgar Square, and being filmed for streaming the following Thursday - ‘re:connect’.

Lucy Crowe and Allan Clayton join Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO at St Luke's

The London Symphony Orchestra opened their Autumn 2020 season with a homage to Oliver Knussen, who died at the age of 66 in July 2018. The programme traced a national musical lineage through the twentieth century, from Britten to Knussen, on to Mark-Anthony Turnage, and entwining the LSO and Rattle too.

Choral Dances: VOCES8, Live from London

With the Live from London digital vocal festival entering the second half of the series, the festival’s host, VOCES8, returned to their home at St Annes and St Agnes in the City of London to present a sequence of ‘Choral Dances’ - vocal music inspired by dance, embracing diverse genres from the Renaissance madrigal to swing jazz.

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

Fading: The Gesualdo Six at Live from London

"Before the ending of the day, creator of all things, we pray that, with your accustomed mercy, you may watch over us."

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen at the Oscarshall Palace in Oslo

The doors at The Metropolitan Opera will not open to live audiences until 2021 at the earliest, and the likelihood of normal operatic life resuming in cities around the world looks but a distant dream at present. But, while we may not be invited from our homes into the opera house for some time yet, with its free daily screenings of past productions and its pay-per-view Met Stars Live in Concert series, the Met continues to bring opera into our homes.

Precipice: The Grange Festival

Music-making at this year’s Grange Festival Opera may have fallen silent in June and July, but the country house and extensive grounds of The Grange provided an ideal setting for a weekend of twelve specially conceived ‘promenade’ performances encompassing music and dance.

Monteverdi: The Ache of Love - Live from London

There’s a “slide of harmony” and “all the bones leave your body at that moment and you collapse to the floor, it’s so extraordinary.”

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Alexandra Deshorties
25 Oct 2015

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

In the first half of the 19th century, Spontini’s La Vestale was a hit. Empress Josephine sponsored its premiere, Parisians heard it hundreds of times, Berlioz raved about it and Wagner conducted it.

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Alexandra Deshorties

 

It then sank into near total obscurity, reemerging only as a vehicle for great sopranos, including Maria Callas in Luchino Visconti’s legendary 1954 production at La Scala, but also Rosa Ponselle, Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Gundula Janowitz, Rosalind Plowright and June Anderson. Revivals have also attracted Franco Corelli, Francisco Araiza, Renato Bruson, Riccardo Muti and Roger Norrington.

Today most performances of La Vestale take place in French-speaking countries, with profound consequences. The opera is no longer sung in Italian, but in the original French. In contrast to the thrilling dramatic voices listed above, singers today typically possess lighter and thinner voices, as well as stylistic sensibilities, shaped by the Baroque opera movement. The same goes for the weight of the orchestral sound. Historians of music often treat this work as a transitional work: mid-20th century performances bring to mind the new romanticism of Berlioz and Wagner, which it influenced, while contemporary performances recall the classical tradition of tregédie lyrique Spontini inherited from Gluck and Cherubini. Finally, older performances (Visconti aside) tended to focus almost exclusively on orchestral drama and vocal virtuosity, whereas recent performances place more weight on the originality of the production, direction and design concepts.

La Vestale - Alexandra Deshorties from La Monnaie | De Munt on Vimeo.

This production presented by Opera La Monnaie in Brussels, co-produced with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris (where a different cast was heard in 2013), illustrates this shift. It starts well. The Brussels players, sounding lively and textured under Baroque and bel canto specialist Alessandro de Marchi, make much of the overture’s famous orchestral effects. As for the singers, a case can be made that lighter voices and French language bring more immediacy and elegance to sung lines than Callas and Corelli.

Still, one cannot help wondering if the voices Brussels has chosen are entirely appropriate to the historical circumstances and style of this opera. La vestale was celebrated in its own time for its grandeur and heroism, which appeared appropriate to Napoleon’s empire. It was also written at a time when French opera still employed forceful, declamatory style, just prior to the transition to the purer and lighter Italian bel canto style. It is no surprise, then, that in Brussels the larger, heavier and lowest voices make the greatest impact.

The vocal star of the evening is the mezzo Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as La Grande Vestale. This is a young singer to watch in coming years as she assumes more big roles in major houses. Her large and resonant (yet focused) voice refracts wonderful colors across a seemingly limitless “falcon” range. Compelling musical expression and clear diction bring to life Spontini’s long vocal lines and the maternal instincts of the head priestess. Bass Jean Teitgen is also impressive, singing with lean and elegant power, as well as fine diction—overall combining restraint and authority in a way suited to a Soverain Pontife. Both would be impressive in any era.

La Vestale - Alexandra Deshorties from La Monnaie | De Munt on Vimeo.

Elsewhere the cast is more problematic. The casting of Licinius exemplifies how times have changed. In the 1950s La Scala chose the dramatic tenor Franco Corelli, who knows how to make an appropriately heroic entry when it matters—e.g. at the start of Act 3. Today Monnaie chooses high baritone Yann Beuron, a French Baroque and Mozart specialist for whom even recent forays into Debussy have proven a bit heavy. Beuron sings correctly, evenly, and with a certain aristocratic plausibility, but he often seems overpowered by a role in which Spontini’s contemporaries had little difficulty recognizing Napoleon. Julien Dran similarly tones down Cinna, Lucinius’s tenor sidekick, to a pleasant tenorino, light and a bit dry.

This leaves the French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties as the ill-behaved virgin at the center of the plot. Deshorties possesses neither a classically sculpted voice, nor aristocratic charm one might expect. Her high notes are intermittently strident at forte, which she often works around by singing high phrases pianissimo, sometimes quite incongruously. She can thus be disappointing in roles that require vocal consistency: Konstanze in Entführung, for example. Yet she possesses a mid-weight soprano with a visceral edge, a body and face with strikingly angular and animated features, and fearless commitment to musical-dramatic expression. In the right roles, which include early 19th century heroines such as Medea , her vocal and dramatic qualities can ignite into a thrilling intensity that is more than the sum of the parts.

This does not quite occur here: her assumption of Julia is solid but something of a cypher. She is most effective when sustaining long and relaxed legato lines in the middle of the voice at modest volume—as in the Act 3 duet—but the role does not contain enough opportunities for this. Elsewhere, however, sustained singing varied vocal ranges, expressions and dynamics, especially in the big arias, lead her to fragment Spontini’s nobly vocal arcs, which sometimes extend for more than a minute. Combined with a tendency to bail out to pianissimi on culminating high notes, this deflates the tension of long scenes, such as Julia’s Act 2 aria,“Toi que j’implore avec affroi.” On top of it all, she wears a mike, the purpose of which is unclear to me.

Sylvie_Brunet-Grupposo.pngSylvie Brunet-Grupposo [Photo courtesy of Hilbert Artists Management]

Then there is the matter of the production. Eric Lacascade, a French stage director, has had his ups and downs in France, and this is his first operatic effort. It shows. As is often the case these days, this production dilutes and diffuses a promising concept through mediocre and ill-considered choices. The basic idea is promising: the opera reenacting a timeless ritual of purification in an amphitheater. This concept is well-suited to the plot of the opera and the Gluckian rigor of the score. Often referred to as a poor-man’s Norma with a happy ending, it tells of Julia, a Roman vestal virgin, who sullies herself one night with Licinius, a heroic Roman soldier, and thereby neglects the eternal flame, which dies out. Condemned to die by entombment, she is reprieved when a strike of divine lightning rekindles the flame. The score is full of self-sacrificing monologues, solemn choruses, pleas to the gods, and curses by angry priests, most written in a spartan, declaratory manner.

The minimalist sets are appropriate to this concept. The stage is almost empty, without any architectural elements to signal time and place. Much of the action takes place on or around a small raised platform in the center, on which are placed the eternal flame in Act II and a cage for Julia in Act III. The costumes are just right: men and women dressed in identical, quasi-religious clothing of black and white, or muted blue and rust. Even laypeople and soldiers blend in, even if the latter, in cheap black leather sleeveless vests with matching wrist bands, are Hollywood B adventure movie material. This approach also makes the most of the space: with the Théâtre de la Monnaie under renovation, the performances take place at the Cirque-Royale, a large, steeply raked circular space.

If the production team had stopped there and focused on Spontini’s music, which few listeners have ever heard live, the immersion in ancient solemnity and spectacle might make for a moving evening. Yet any prospect of this is undermined by numberless fussy and thoughtless details. This is a widespread problem in the opera world, which has been overrun by inexperienced theater directors who do not really grasp the genre. Perhaps the most common error is to direct singers to move and make gestures constantly, as if they were spoken actors. This further encourages the production staff to clutter the stage with irrelevant little objects as justification for the singers’ wandering attention and random actions. In doing so, what directors miss is that operatic music itself provides movement in another dimension, usually rendering it unnecessary to add physical movement. Occasionally physical Often they are distracting, and sometimes they points that run entirely counter to the score and libretto.

La Vestale is particularly vulnerable to such irrelevant and ill-conceived clutter, because is comprised of urgent, long-phrased, high-minded declarations. Julia’s big Act II aria, for example, has its own musical architecture: an earnest lament to the Gods followed by a desperate cabaletta of internal monologue. Yet Deshortes is obliged to get up and kneel down repeatedly, to move aimlessly across the stage, and, at the climax, to repeatedly pick up and put down candles—as if to remind us at the moment where her inner turmoil boils over that she is a novice in her first day of employment with some cleaning around the temple to get done. Similarly, the director willfully distracts the audience from Spontini’s orchestral introduction to Act III, sending two priests wandering out to solemnly inspect the bare stage, direct the placement of a couple of benches, and leave. What is lost is demonstrated by an exception that proves the rule: the most sublime moment of the evening is the Act III duet, sung entirely with Julia resting her head in the Grande Vestale’s lap, motionless the classic pose of daughter and mother.

These are examples of crude and thoughtless self-indulgence, but the directorial dilettantism goes further, undermining the central thrust of the opera. In the final scene, the sacred fire is relit not by divine lightning, but by a match surreptitiously tossed by a townswoman. This is inconsistent even with the director’s own concepts up to that point, which stress (among other things) an undercurrent of male priests oppressing female vestal virgins. In a more rigorous realization, the vestal virgins as a group, or perhaps even the Grande Vestale herself, would have relit the flame, since for them (both libretto and common sense make clear) the conflict between religious belief and gender solidarity is acute and constitutive of a changed sense of identity.

But even more is at stake here. This cute but anachronistic touch of irony distorts the deeper central theme of this opera, which is not, as this director seems to think, that religion is a fraud designed by and for hypocrites. Rather, it is that religious and secular virtues conflict in ways that human institutions can only imperfectly resolve, and thus they must change. Richard Wagner was influenced by Spontini, and throughout his work he considered this clash of religious and secular life the central issue in his stage works, most notably Tannhäuser and Parsifal but also the Ring. Wagner was a Feuerbachian, so surely he did not believe in divine lighting, yet his attitude toward the reenactment of beliefs and myths (e.g. divine lightning) is far less dismissive and superficial than that of Lacascade. For Wagner, sacred myth is not simply oppressive hypocrisy, but an essential component of human existence; its transformation is therefore always moving, whether in a tragic or a celebratory sense.

In order to make human sense of the plot, it is thus essential that the Act 3 lightning strike be overpoweringly impressive, for it must instantly trigger in all observers, even the vestal virgins themselves, a sincere and genuine change in their perception of divine law (“Le ciel…manifeste ses volenté!”) To portray this profound reevaluation as the result of a cheap trick is to trivialize the plot. In the moment, it seems ridiculous that priests and everyone else should alter their entire society because someone tossed match. It renders the plot up to that moment inconsistent, notably the fact that every character—but most notably Julia herself, in each of her big arias, but also — struggles sincerely and seriously with the role of religious belief. And it distorts the clear arc of the libretto, which traces the dissolution and reconstitution of a harmonious community. The final minutes of Spontini’s score brilliantly portray the intense outpouring of joy and relief from everyone, priests included, at the reestablishment of new communal values.

Andrew Moravcsik


Cast and production information:

Licinius: Yann Beuron; Cinna: Julien Dran; Le Souverain Pontife: Jean Teitgen; Julia: Alexandra Deshorties; La Grande Vestale: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Orchestre: Orchestre symphonique et chœurs de la Monnaie. Chœur: Académie de choeur de la Monnaie. Direction musicale: Alessandro De Marchi. Mise en scène: Éric Lacascade. Décors: Emmanuel Clolus. Costumes: Marguerite Bordat. Éclairages: Philippe Berthomé. Dramaturgie: Daria Lippi. Direction des chœurs: Martino Faggiani. Direction de l’Académie de chœur: Benoît Giaux. La Monnaie, Bruxelles, 22 October 2015.

Click here for additional information on Spontini’s La Vestale.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):