It’s thanks to the uncharacteristic choice of this year’s Monnaie/Munt program, that we have the possibility to hear this wonderful opera by Gaspare Spontini, unfortunately now an almost forgotten composer. Spontini was born in Italy, got his first musical education in Naples, and grew artistically in Paris, where he wrote hugely popular operas such as La Vestale, Fernand Cortez and Olympie. Berlioz was a huge admirer, so much as to write a novel, where a suicide is committed after a performance of La Vestale as life had no further meaning after such an experience. I wouldn’t go as far, but indeed musically it is one of those masterpieces full of “choeurs magnifiques, ces prières nobles et touchantes, ce final inouï, ces récitatifs si larges, si mélodieusment vrais, ces chants tremblants d’émotions, si inspirés, si riches, cet orchestre puissant, pompeux et toujours dramatique, si tant d’élan sublimes…” (these magnificent choirs, these noble and touching prayers, these extraordinary finales, these ample melodic recitatives, this music trembling with emotions, so inspired, so rich, this powerful orchestra, pompous and always dramatic, this sublime impetus… – Berlioz in Le renovateur, 18 mai 1834). The orchestral writing was indeed quite dramatic, vibrating, pulsating, colourful. It is clear, hearing Spontini’s music, why Berlioz was so fascinated by it, so far as to try to emulate it. And the orchestra is so well directed by Alessandro de Marchi, that it felt as an additional character. It was extremely well balanced although it follows a 18th century tradition of being placed looking towards the stage, with the violins closest and the brass, wood and percussion furthest from the stage. Under De Marchi the orchestra is light and powerful, dramatic and transparent.
Lascascade as director was the complete opposite. The set so minimal that the first act starts with a complete empty stage and ends with a couple of tables on it. This affects the already difficult acustic of the Cirque Royal even more, with some of the voices sounding hollow. Overall the direction was not as bad as in Paris (reading reviews Lascascade probably reassessed his approach slightly), but there are very cringy situation, such as the running choir in Act I, the spinning choir in Act III, the reviving of the holy fire with a domestic gas lighter and the extremely cheap-looking sets.
The voices again were overall excellent. Berlioz, in talking about the voice of Mme Branchu, the first Julia, describes it as “pleines et retentissantes, douces et fortes, capables de dominer les chœurs et l’orchestre, et pouvant s’éteindre jusqu’au murmure le plus affaibli de la passion timide, de la crainte ou de la rêverie….” I didn’t go to the theatre with Berlioz’ severe expectation. But I must say Alexandra Deshorties was amazing. Except for a slight strain in the top notes of the duet’s finale, Deshorties recited dramatically, her voice passion packed in recitative as much as in her arias, her phrasing exquisite, delivering a gripping performance. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo sounded a bit throaty and had a poor legato, but her rendering of the Grande Vestale was passionate. Yann Beuron was slightly short on top, but he also rendered an amazing Licinius, full of fiery passion and impetuous ardour. Very good also Julien Dran as Cinna and excellent Jean Teitgen as Pontife. Reserves on Lascascade, but otherwise a wonderful performance from singers, chorus and orchestra.
15/10/15: Muzikale leiding-Alessandro de Marchi, Regie-Eric Lascascade, Decors-Emmanuel Clolus, Kostuums-Marguerite Bordat, Belichting-Philippe Berthomé, Dramaturgie-Daria Lippi, Licinius-Yann Beuron, Cinna-Julien Dran, Le souverain Pontife-Jean Teitgen, Julia-Alexandra Deshorties, La Grande Vestale-Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo