OP0502. LA VESTALE (Spontini), Live Performance, 4 Dec., 1969, w.Previtali Cond. Teatro Mássimo Ensemble, Palermo; Leyla Gencer, Renato Bruson, Agostino Ferrin, etc. (Slovenia) 2-Living Stage 4035163. Long out-of-print, final copies! - 3830025741872
“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
“Leyla Gencer was the greatest Turkish opera singer of the 20th century and a singing actor of formidable power and individuality. Although she came from what she herself referred to as a ‘Muslim and oriental’ background, she had the good fortune, as a student in Istanbul, to study with the famous Italian dramatic soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, so that when she went to Italy in 1953, she was thoroughly grounded in the traditions of Italian opera. Gencer was a very beautiful woman, with large dark eyes, a wide, generous mouth and a natural command of the stage. She made her début as Santuzza in CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA at the open-air summer festival in Naples in 1953, and remained a particular favourite with the Neapolitans. Throughout her career, Gencer had a very wide repertoire, ranging from Monteverdi, Gluck and Mozart to Verdi, Ponchielli and Puccini. During her career she sang virtually every soprano rôle in Verdi's operas, but it was especially in the revival of bel-canto works by Bellini, Donizetti and Pacini that she made her mark. To some extent, Gencer shot to fame in the immediate aftermath of the end of Maria Callas' Italian career - Gencer followed Callas as Anna Bolena at La Scala, and in the rôle of Paolina in Donizetti's POLIUTO - the last new part Callas undertook. As Queen Elizabeth I of England, first in Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX, and then in Rossini's ELISABETTA, REGINA D'INGHILTERRA, Gencer preceded Montserrat Caballé and Beverly Sills, who later recorded the rôles. Although Gencer's career was mostly in Italy, she appeared in the United States, where she made her début in San Francisco as Lucia in 1957, returning there, as well as to Chicago and Dallas. John Ardoin described her voice in a memorable LUCREZIA BORGIA in 1974, as ‘poignant, compelling’ and mentioned the ‘strange colours and deep pathos of her art’. In England she was heard at Glyndebourne as the Countess in FIGARO, and as Anna Bolena. At Covent Garden she was Donna Anna in Zeffirelli's 1962 production of DON GIOVANNI, then Elisabeth de Valois in DON CARLOS. Gencer's most memorable UK appearances were undoubtedly in the title rôle of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969. The sparks that flew on stage in the confrontation - historically absurd but dramatically thrilling - when Gencer as Mary Stuart ripped off her glove and flung it in the face of Shirley Verrett as Elizabeth I at the words, ‘Vil bastarda’ will surely live in the memory of all who witnessed it. Gencer had no career whatsoever as a recording artist, but many of her broadcasts from Italian radio have now been issued on disc and are a fine memorial to her voice and dramatic ability.”
- Patrick O'Connor, The Guardian, 12 May, 2008
“Bruson was one of the foremost bel canto and Verdi baritones of his generation, and while this side of his artistry is lesser-known in the United States, he was also an accomplished song performer, specializing again in Romantic-era Italian works. He frequently championed the songs of Tosti, and was named an honorary citizen of Cortona, Tosti's home city, in recognition of this. While his Verdi roles are perhaps his best-known, especially Macbeth, Rigoletto, Renato (UN BALLO IN MASCHERA), and Simon Boccanegra, he sang in no fewer than seventeen Donizetti operas during the 1970s and 1980s, just ahead of the crest of a great resurgence of interest in lesser-known nineteenth-century works.
He made his opera début as the Conte di Luna in IL TROVATORE at Spoleto in 1961. He appeared at the Met for the first time in 1969, as Enrico in LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, and made his La Scala début in LINDA DI CHAMONIX in 1972. In 1973, he made his Chicago Lyric Opera début as Renato in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, and in 1975 he made his Covent Garden début in the same role, substituting for Piero Cappuccilli. His Vienna State Opera début was in 1978, as Verdi's Macbeth. He sang with Riccardo Muti for the first time in 1970, and over the years became an adherent of Muti's insistence on singing come scritto, without singer-interpolated high notes, believing that this focuses attention on the music and drama rather than the singer.
His RIGOLETTO on Philips captures one of his major roles quite well, and among his many Tosti recordings on Nuova Era, ‘Romanze su Testi Italiani’ is one of the strongest.”
- Anne Feeney, allmusic.com
"Bruson was the quintessential Verdi baritone in the second half of the last century. A Verdi baritone not as it was understood (or rather, misunderstood) in the 1950's and 60's, but a Verdi baritone as understood and desired by the composer himself.”
- Christian Springer