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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.

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