GASPARE SPONTINI (1774 – 1851): La vestale — Indra Thomas (Giulia), Thomas Kinch (Licinio), Tahanee Aluwihare (La Gran Vestale), Kyle Oliver (Cinna), Eric Lindsey (Il sommo Sacerdote), Rick Agster (Un aruspice), HyunSoon Kim (Un console); Teatro Grattacielo Chorus and Orchestra; Christian Capocaccia, conductor [Stefanos Koroneos, director and concept curator; Lydia Venieri, multidisciplinary artwork designer; Matthew Deinhart, lighting designer; Vaibhavi Deo, visual effects designer; Angela Huff, costume designer; Tiger Lily Moreno, makeup designer; Teatro Grattacielo, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, New York, USA; Saturday, 28 October 2023]
There is perhaps no rôle in opera more inextricably associated with a single singer than the heroine of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale is with Maria Callas. Though created in the opera’s 1807 Paris première by the Haitian-born soprano Caroline Branchu, remembered both for her musical prowess and for her short-lived but well-documented romantic liaison with Napoléon, and respectively interpreted to acclaim in the first and third quarters of the Twentieth Century by Rosa Ponselle and Leyla Gencer, the part of the Vestālis Julia might have been specially tailored to Callas’s singular musical capabilities and dramatic sensibilities. With many similarities to the title rôle in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, a part in discussions of which Callas is still mentioned with reverence, Julia—or, as Callas knew her, Giulia—provided Callas with the sort of interpretive challenges upon which she thrived. Commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the legendary soprano’s birth by presenting in Callas’s native city a rare performance of La vestale, Teatro Grattacielo honored Callas’s enduring influence on standards of operatic expression by resurrecting the shades of Callas’s unique histrionic prowess that still inhabit every page of Spontini’s score.
Unlike other rôles in which her legacy continues to influence—and intimidate—Twenty-First-Century interpreters, La Divina sang Giulia in La vestale in only five performances of a sole production, Luchino Visconti’s 1954 staging at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Working with Visconti for the first time and partnered by Franco Corelli, Ebe Stignani, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Callas unquestionably appreciated the parallels between Giulia and the bel canto rôle with which she arguably remains most identified, Bellini’s Norma. Regrettably, the surviving recording of the La Scala broadcast of the Vestale performance of 7 December 1954, widely circulated in commercial and clandestine releases, is of frustratingly poor audio quality, the sonic murk obscuring much of Spontini’s orchestral writing and crucial elements of the story. Nonetheless, the unerring musicality of Callas’s portrayal of Giulia is perceptible, the recording’s debilitating limitations fading into insignificance whenever she sings.
Utilizing the Italian translation of Étienne de Jouy’s libretto prepared for an 1811 production at Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli by Giovanni Schmidt, whose work in Naples included penning the texts for Paer’s Leonora and Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Armida, Adelaide di Borgogna, and Eduardo e Cristina, Teatro Grattacielo closely reproduced the edition of La vestale staged by Visconti in 1954, excisions primarily focused on the extensive sequences of dances in Acts One and Three and Cinna’s Act Three aria ‘Ascoltar i vani accenti.’
Evocatively accentuated by Matthew Deinhart’s lighting designs, aptly conflagratory imagery dominated Artistic Director Stefanos Koroneos’s and visual effects designer Vaibhavi Deo’s concept, alternately symbolizing romantic ardor, religious zeal, and divine absolution. With the choristers and male principals in modern dress, contrasting markedly with the sumptuous, flowing gowns in which Giulia and La Gran Vestale appeared, the costume designs by Angela Huff and multidisciplinary artist Lydia Venieri and Tiger Lily Moreno’s flatteringly natural makeup enhanced the performance’s sense of occasion without interfering with the physical act of singing. Movement recalled the understated gesturing favored by Callas in the surviving film footage of her 1964 Covent Garden Tosca, ideally suiting both the performance’s prevailing ethos and the gravitas of the music.
Addio, la mia sorella: soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia (left) and mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as la Gran Vestale (right) in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]
Conductor Christian Capocaccia and the orchestra assembled by Teatro Grattacielo created a musical foundation for this Vestale that compared favorably with the work of their Milanese counterparts both in 1954 and in the later, commercially-recorded production of the French version conducted by Riccardo Muti. Pacing the score with discernible cognizance of its historical context, Capocaccia sagaciously integrated reminiscences of Haydn, Salieri, Mozart, and Cimarosa with suggestions of later works by Bellini, Weber, and Wagner. Kinships with Cherubini’s Medea—in the title rôle of which Callas also excelled—and Beethoven’s Fidelio were especially apparent, not least in the immediacy with which Capocaccia shaped transitions from declamatory passages to currents of lyricism. From the start of the opera’s episodic Overture, which owes much to the models of Gluck’s operatic preludes, the orchestral musicians played with verve and virtuosity, aiding Capocaccia in achieving equilibrium between Classical poise and Romantic passion. The conductor’s tempi capitalized on the singers’—and the score’s—strengths, facilitating dramatic involvement by adhering to the theatrical confines of Spontini’s carefully-wrought musical structures.
Comprised of professional singers and students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, Teatro Grattacielo’s chorus sang with musical and verbal clarity that demonstrated the effectiveness of the training that they received from chorus master Jason Tramm. Joining La Gran Vestale in the Inno mattutino in Act One, the choristers intoned ‘Alma Vesta del cielo pura figlia’ reverently, their sound well balanced despite the comparative weakness of the lower voices. Both in its initial statement and its later reprise, ‘Di lauri il suol spargiamo’ was strongly sung, and the evolving sentiments of ‘Della Dea pura seguace’ and ‘La pace in questo giorno è il fruto del valore’ were enacted with subtle gradations of volume and intensity.
In Act Two, the Inno della sera was radiantly voiced, the chorus crafting diaphanous aural textures. In the act’s charged finale, the discovery of Giulia having allowed the sacred flame to be extinguished plunging the drama into crisis, the choristers’ forceful singing heightened the tension. The theatrical efficacy of Act Three was also bolstered by their work, the very different moods of ‘La Vestale infida mora’ and ‘Licinio! Oh Numi!’ vividly communicated. Rejoicing in catastrophe being averted by the miraculous restoration of the altar fire, the catharsis of the opera’s final scene surged in ‘Lieti concenti, dolci momenti,’ voiced with emotional engagement.
As un aruspice, bass Rick Agster uttered ‘Differir vi consiglio il sacrifizio’ in Act Three with urgency, the flinty timbre of his voice keenly imparting the significance of the stern haruspex’s auguring. The sole disappointment of baritone HyunSoon Kim’s performance as un console was the brevity of his part: so incisive and handsomely-voiced was his enunciation of ‘La pace in questo giorno è il frutto del valor’ in the Act One finale that more music for the character would have been most welcome.
Sul precipizio della giustizia: (from left to right) soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia, bass Eric Lindsey as Il sommo Sacerdote, and mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as la Gran Vestale in TeatroGrattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]
The extent to which the rôle of il sommo Sacerdote, the irascible guardian of the sanctity of the temple of Vesta, fell victim to the pruning to which Spontini’s score was subjected in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of La vestale seemed especially injurious with a singer of the exceptional caliber exemplified by bass Eric Lindsey interpreting the part. The character’s commanding ‘Ormai cessi il tripudio’ in the Act One finale was unfortunately suppressed, reducing him to a figure who was seen but not heard in the opera’s first act. When Lindsey’s voice was unleashed in Act Two, the Sacerdote’s authority thundered thrillingly. He sang ‘Grida vendetta il cielo contro la coppia’ explosively and launched the Act Two finale with an anguished ‘Oh delitto!’ before voicing ‘O perfida ministra’ with sonorous solemnity. In the Act Three duetto with Licinio, Lindsey sang ‘Tal’è il voler de’ Numi’ fervently, revealing the psychological toll of inviolable duty. The voice shimmered with relief in an account of ‘Olà, tutti fermate spettacol di contento!’ that exhibited the insightfulness of his portrayal, Lindsey’s vocal assurance elucidating the subtleties of his use of words.
As Cinna, the captain of a Roman legion under Licinio’s command, baritone Kyle Oliver sang boldly and acted with conviction that credibly projected the character’s martial bravado. At his entrance in Act One, Oliver voiced ‘Presso il sublime tempio a Vesta sacro’ robustly, establishing Cinna as a consequential participant in the opera’s narrative, and the aria ‘Tu nascondi a un fido core’ was sung with panache, the baritone’s vocal security undermined only by a few effortful notes at the top of the range. In the duetto with Licinio, Oliver sang ‘Ah! sgombri il ciel si rio presentimento’ pointedly, the captain’s growing unease coloring the voice. The verbal acuity with which Cinna’s lines in the Act Two terzetto with Giulia and Licinio were articulated was equaled by the musicality of the baritone’s vocalism. The loss of his aria ‘Ascoltar i vani accenti’ left Cinna with little to do in Act Three, but, here and throughout the performance, Oliver made much of each note and word.
Le guardiane della fiamma: mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as La Gran Vestale (left) and soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia (right) in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]:
Ebe Stignani was nearing the end of her storied career when she partnered Callas in La vestale at La Scala in 1954, but the broadcast recording confirms that she remained a worthy collaborator, her portrayal of la Gran Vestale vocally confident and emotionally affecting. Teatro Grattacielo’s Gran Vestale, mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare, was also a superbly-qualified companiom for her Giulia. In Act One, ‘Alma Vesta del ciel pura figlia’ in the Inno mattutino was phrased with true dignity, the text used as the source of musical momentum. Like Stignani, Aluwihare was tested by the top Gs and As in the largo con moto aria ‘È l’Amore un mostro,’ but this and the andante espressivo ‘Il tuo cor si perde’ were handled intrepidly. ‘Tu dell’immortal face vigil custode’ in the Act One finale was nobly voiced. La Gran Vestale’s music in Act Two was also sung majestically, ‘O Giulia, è questa l’ora solenne’ sculpted with effortless Classical line. Aluwihare’s singing in Act Three reached a new pinnacle of grandeur, the sincerity of the character’s affection for Giulia permeating her work in their duetto. The serenity of Aluwihare’s portrayal was consistently allied with musical eloquence, her vocal acting touchingly disclosing la Gran Vestale’s devotion to Giulia as both hierarchical superior and friend.
L’amante trionfante: tenor Thomas Kinch as Licinio in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]
It is justly Callas whose brief acquaintance with La vestale is celebrated, but Franco Corelli’s depiction of the Roman general Licinio in the 1954 Visconti production is no less important in the opera’s performance history. Rarely a paragon of style in any repertoire other than verismo, Corelli ably followed Callas’s lead, singing Spontini’s music with surprising restraint. Cladding Licinio in gallant vocal attire hewn from a bronze-hued, baritonal timbre, tenor Thomas Kinch rivaled Corelli as an enthralling paramour for his Giulia. His opening recitative in Act One was delivered with conversational response to the text. Concentration on limning the meaning of the words was a defining aspect of his singing of ‘Quando amistà seconda il mio ardimento’ in the maestoso marziale duetto with Cinna, and the Act One finale was begun with a galvanizing ‘Trionfan l’armi nostre,’ the voice dominating the ensemble without pushing.
Assiduously duetting with Giulia in Act Two, Kinch articulated ‘Avran pietà gli Dei’ energetically, rising with his soprano colleague to an electrifying top B♭. No less pulse-quickening was his vocalism in the terzetto with Giulia and Cinna, the general’s psyche made audible. Kinch’s traversal of Licinio’s aria in Act Three, ‘Ah! no, s’io vivo ancora,’ was arresting, the tenor’s interpolated top B♭ blossoming in the theater’s acoustic. ‘D’un sacrifizio orrendo’ in the riveting duetto with il sommo Sacerdote surged with expressive brawn, but it was with ‘Vieni colà’ in the opera’s final scene that Kinch fully affirmed his mastery of Licinio’s dramatic predicament and Spontini’s musical language. Corelli’s voice was as extraordinary an instrument as Callas’s, and Kinch resisted any temptation to mimic his predecessor, instead crafting a portrayal of Licinio from which, were it preserved for posterity as Corelli’s was, future exponents of the rôle might learn.
La donna del fuoco sacro: soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]
Soprano Indra Thomas was no novice in paying homage to Callas’s musical relationship with the New York metropolitan area, having sung Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata—a rôle famously interpreted by Callas at Carnegie Hall in 1959—in a 2000 Bel Canto at Caramoor performance. Her portrayal of Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo’s La vestale intimated that, owing to her meticulously-honed technique, the intervening years have been uncommonly kind to Thomas’s voice. There were passages in which shifts among the lower, middle, and upper registers were toilsome, but intonation was largely unimpeded. The sound of the voice as she sang ‘Fremo al nome di Vesta’ and Giulia’s music in the animated scene with la Gran Vestale in Act One fleetingly brought Jessye Norman’s timbre to mind, but both the sonic impact and the dramatic accents of her reading of the aria ‘Ti vedrò, ti vedrò fra momenti’ and Giulia’s music in the Act One finale were entirely her own.
Joining la Gran Vestale and the chorus in the Inno della sera in Act Two, Thomas sang limpidly. The tranquility of Giulia’s cloistered life disrupted by her love for Licinio, Thomas started the andante sostenuto opening of the aria ‘Tu che invoco orrore’ with finesse, her repeated top A♭s and cadenza ascending to top B♭ evincing the young lady’s innate honor. ‘Su questo sacro altare’ was declaimed with burgeoning self-recrimination, Giulia’s dedication to her vows undermined by doubt, and her voicing of the de facto cabaletta ‘Sospendete qualche istante,’ resolved with a long-sustained top C, electrified the atmosphere for her scorching singing of ‘Di Saturno la figlia i nostri prieghi ascotla’ in the duetto with Licinio and Giulia’s agonized lines in the subsequent terzetto. The lovely andante sostenuto ‘O Nume tutelar degl’infelici’ in the act’s final scene received dulcet handling, the soprano reminding the listener of the bel canto delicacy with which Callas caressed this music.
The gentle sorrow of ‘Addio, addio, tenere suore’ in the Act Three duetto with la Gran Vestale simmered in Thomas’s voice, her vowels darkened by despair. The larghetto aria ‘Caro oggetto, il di cui nome’ was sung with grace and simplicity, Giulia’s acceptance of her fate communicated with hushed contrition. The sacred cauldron reignited by lightning, the earnestness with which Thomas conveyed Giulia’s awe at the show of divine favor was deeply moving. Her euphonious ‘Oh clemenza del ciel!’ gleamed, and she matched her Licinio’s exuberance in ‘Vieni colà.’ Shouldering much of the responsibility for the outcome of Teatro Grattacielo’s venture, Thomas wisely eschewed musical pontificating, attempting neither to replicate Callas’s portrayal of Giulia nor to proclaim La vestale a neglected masterwork. Along with her colleagues on stage, in the pit, and behind the scenes, she executed her part with understanding of the words and fidelity to the score, allowing Spontini’s music to advocate on its own behalf. That advocacy proved to be incredibly persuasive.