OP0501. LA VESTALE (Spontini), Live Performance, 27 March, 1951, w.Previtali Cond. RAI Ensemble, Roma; Maria Vitale, Elena Nicolai, Renato Gavarini, Alfredo Fineschi, etc. (Italy) 2-GOP 66.319. Very Long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 8012719663195
“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.
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.
‘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’.
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. 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.”
- The Opera Scribe
“Maria Vitale studied with the renowned Giannina Arangi-Lombardi in Milan. At first it was assumed that her voice was that of a coloratura soprano, however upon the recommendation of composer Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli, she turned to the dramatic soprano repertoire. After singing in the ‘Martini-Rossi’ concerts on Italian radio, she appeared as a guest at the Paris Opéra in 1950 to considerable success, singing Norma, Leonora, Amelia and Aida.
In 1951, the year of Verdi's 50th death anniversary, she sang major parts in lesser known Verdi operas for RAI, notably; Leonora in OBERTO, Giselda in I LOMBARDI, Lucrezia in I DUE FOSCARI, and Mina in AROLDO. She continued singing in Italy, appearing in Palermo, Florence, Turin, Trieste, etc. In 1953, she sang the title rôle in ELISABETTA, REGINA D'INGHILTERRA on Italian radio, and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, as Desdemona in Rossini's OTELLO. Other rôles included Senta and Elsa, she was also a successful interpreter of Lieder, a rarity among Italian singers, and appeared in recital in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Berlin.
Vitale never achieved the international career she had hoped for and retired, still at the height of her powers, with her husband in the small town of Munsingen in Switzerland. Later she taught for a while in the United States, then returned to Europe and lived partly in Munsingen, partly in Milan, where she died in 1984. She can be heard on recordings in Spontini's LA VESTALE, Mercadante's IL GIURAMENTO, and the aforementioned, OBERTO, I LOMBARDI, I DUE FOSCARI, and AROLDO.”
- H. P. Casavant