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Gaspare SPONTINI (1774-1850)
La Vestale (1807)
Maria Callas (soprano) Ė Giulia
Franco Corelli (tenor) Ė Licinio
Enzo Sordello (baritone) Ė Cinna
Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (bass) Ė Il Sommo Sacerdote
Ebe Stignani (mezzo) - La Gran Vestale
Vittorio Tatozzi (bass) - Un Console
Nicola Zaccaria (bass) Ė Aruspice
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan/Antonino Votto
Recorded live in La Scala, December 1954
ANDROMEDA ANDRCD 5016 [59.54 + 70.39]

Spontiniís La Vestale is a peculiar and perplexing work. Clearly itís an important bridge between late eighteenth century classicism and the Romanticism of Berlioz. And it bears some similarity with Belliniís Norma in its focusing on a character whose abandonment of sacred love leads to her undoing (though La Vestale is a much more benign opera in that respect). But although there are long sections of Act II that are riveting in their theatrical tension elsewhere there are "by the yard" paragraphs of pretty numbing tedium. That said the different techniques Spontini uses Ė arioso, sung recitative, aria and the like - do provide variety and internal dynamism.

Itís the kind of work that needs a heroine of outstanding stature; Ponselle was one such and she sang it with success. Nearer our time Caballé has essayed it as well. But the most notable impersonation was probably that of Callas. She made commercial recordings of her standout arias but this live 1954 La Scala performance has long been admired by her legion of delirious worshippers. And quite rightly too. The sound is pretty awful, letís be frank. Thereís shatter, and a very constricted range. The balances are none too clever Ė either vocally or orchestrally Ė but itís worth persevering.

Itís not all Callas of course. In the first Act we can hear a wide range of talent on the La Scala stage. The overture, for a start, is driven with tremendous brio by Votto, who tends to be mocked for his conducting but whom I find here galvanic (Golovanic?) in his direction, at least in the early stages. Then thereís the young Corelli, his voice in superb estate, fresh, ringing, firmly centred. He makes a fine team with Enzo Sordello not least in their Act I exchange Presso il sublime tempio (naturally this is all sung in Italian). Stignani is characterful, powerful, and an impressive stage creature but she cedes to Callas whose early scene Oh di funesta possa is dramatically incisive and her recitative is endlessly fascinating for its compelling insight into theatrical expressive gesture and timing.

The Chorus is lusty and whilst their contribution to the end of Act I can hardly be termed subtle (and whilst the chorus submerges the band in the balance) there is, despite all the imperfections and aural sludge, the requisite piety conveyed. Itís Callasí Act II Tu che invoco that really rivets the ear. Thereís great passion to be sure but itís corralled through the strictest of vocal means. The emotion apex is incendiary here, for all the problems with the recording, and itís no wonder the audience applauds well before they should, so intense is the spell Callas has cast Ė and through the most legitimate of vocal means as well. Act IIIís La Vestale infida mora sees Callas joining with Stignani once more - they make a formidable pair. Rossi-Lemeni appears but briefly though his contribution are still notable.

This set has been available before of course, most recently on Opera díOro. Iím afraid I canít follow the provenance of Andromedaís tape because apart from the cast list and a bare running order (à la Walhall etc) thereís no other information provided. So I canít tell you whether their transfer is better than or identical to - or worse than - any previous one. I think that even if you have the commercial Callas-Spontini extracts the white heat of inspiration shades it.

Jonathan Woolf


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