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Saverio MERCADANTE (1795-1870)
La Vestale – opera in three acts (1840) [97:09]
Emilia: Dorianna Milazzo (soprano)
Decio: Dante Alcala (tenor)
Giunia: Agata Bienkowska (mezzo)
Publio: Davide Damiani (baritone)
La Gran Vestale: Danna Glaser (soprano)
Metello Pio: Andrea Patucelli (bass-baritone)
Licinio Murena: Ladislav Elgr (tenor)
Lucio Silano: Mattia Denti (bass)
Wexford Festival Opera Chorus/Lubomir Matl
Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra/Paolo Arrivabeni
rec. live, Theatre Royal, Wexford, Ireland, 23, 26, 29 October 2004. DDD
MARCO POLO 8.225310-11 [38:23 + 58:42]

Following on from their success in capturing "Elena di Feltre" seven years previously, Marco Polo made a welcome return to Wexford last year to record a far better known Mercadante opus, "La Vestale". It is one of a handful of the composer’s works recognisable to the ‘average opera lover’. Premiered at the San Carlo in 1840, it survived in the Neapolitan theatres, albeit in eight different performing versions, for over thirty years.

It was a product, perhaps the acme, of a fundamental re-think by Mercadante in the mid-1830s. A sojourn in Paris and exposure to French grand opera, in particular Meyerbeer’s "Les Huguenots", led the composer to a complete re-appraisal of his style. He later offered an explanation of his new direction in correspondence with his great friend Francisco Florimo, librarian of the Naples Conservatoire:-

"I have continued the revolution I began with "Il Giuramento". Forms are varied, vulgar cabalettas banished, crescendos ... out. A narrower tessitura, fewer repeats, more originality in the cadences; emphasis on the drama, orchestra rich (but not so as to swamp the voices in ensembles) ... not much bass drum ... and a lot less brass."

His disgruntlement had in fact surfaced somewhat earlier. When composing "Emma di Antiocchia" in 1834 he had opined to Florimo:-

"(These) accursed cabalettas ... it ruins everything for me. The more I strive to make them new, the more I’m aware the results are old hat!"

By the time of "La Vestale" he had conquered many of these perceived deficiencies, and succeeded in presenting a piece far less reliant on individual ‘numbers’ to make its effect. Instead there is a well crafted, through-composed structure, with a cumulative effect to the drama.

The plot is set in ancient Rome and sees Emilia become a Vestal Virgin in the belief that her love Decio has been killed in battle. Alas he has not only survived but returns in triumph. Decio is all for defying convention but is persuaded to meet Emilia clandestinely. This they do but the distracted Emilia forgets her prime duty and allows the sacred flame she watches to go out – a sign of great tragedy for Rome. Emilia is summarily tried and sentenced to death. Publio, Decio’s friend leads an appeal to the Consul, Licinio (Decio’s father) but he is unmoved. Emilia is entombed alive despite Decio’s frantic efforts, and with nothing left to live for he commits suicide.

Dante Alcala provides a fine tenor Decio, with some attractive sap in his voice, whilst Doriana Milazzo sings expressively as Emilia. Importantly they blend well in duet, their scene by the sacred flame near the opening of Act 2 being a good example. Agate Bienkowska, a Polish mezzo, is accomplished as Giunia, negotiating her beautiful prayer at the opening of the same act with great feeling. Davide Damiani, Danna Glaser and the rest of the cast provide solid support. Paolo Arrivabeni conducts with sensitivity and drive when necessary, and the sound is admirably clear given stage conditions. Certainly it is an improvement over the BBC relay in 2004.

The only rival recording of which I have knowledge is a set from Bongiovanni (GB2065/66-2), itself a live performance from the Teatro Nazionale Croato di Spalato in April 1987. Duna Vejzovic (Karajan’s Senta on EMI, and Kundry on DG) sings the title role, with Gianfranco Cecchele as Decio. Unsurprisingly in view of her career, Vejzovic sounds heavier than Milazzo, making her Emilia seem more commanding, and perhaps more rounded. This is not for instance a character one would envisage going meekly to her death, although she does nevertheless sing sensitively, scaling her voice down when needed. As her partner Cecchele has more metal to his tone, and is more the conventional ‘heroic’ tenor than Alcala.

Essentially I could enjoy either set, but there are swings and roundabouts. Bongiovanni has both texts and translations in their booklet. Marco Polo has neither, but offers a good synopsis and the ability to access the text (only) from the Naxos website.

However, the Italian issue is lamed by an absurd side-break, placing Giunia’s prayer at the end of disc 1 thereby breaking Act 2 only five or so minutes into the music. Also whilst the sound from the Croatian theatre is generally decent, unlike the Wexford recording, it suffers from moments of distortion - evident on both my systems.

Notwithstanding my criticisms I have really enjoyed the opportunity to hear "La Vestale" again, and my appreciation of a fine work has grown further. Despite some reservations I would plump for the new set as the better all-round experience. If you enjoy Italian opera of this period and are curious to hear an example of the man once unfairly dismissed as "Verdi’s foot-stool" you could do no better than start here.

Ian Bailey



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