Cher Public

Keeper of the flame

If Gaspare Spontini is known to opera-lovers at all, it’s thanks to a single performance of his most famous work—La Scala’s 1954 opening night featuring Maria Callas in La Vestale. Its widely circulated broadcast brought Spontini’s 1807 tragédie lyrique to many, yet several other prima donnas since have also sought to resurrect this recalcitrant opera including Renata Scotto, whose priestess highlights this week’s “Trove Thursday.”  

Like another diva vehicle by an Italian composer and best known in Italian, Luigi Cherubini’s Médée, La Vestale was originally written to a French libretto and premiered in Paris. In addition to an interesting RAI broadcast starring a surprising Gundula Janowitz in the title role, commercial recordings with Rosalind Plowright under Gustav Kuhn and Karen Huffstodt (!) under Riccardo Muti have presented the original.

A concert version in Paris two years ago with Ermonela Jaho also retained the French as does last week’s new production at La Monnaie in Brussels which stars the controversial American soprano Alexandra Deshorties as Julie.

However, like Callas, Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballè and Raina Kabaivanska sang Julie in Italian, as does Scotto in this 1970 performance from the Florence Maggio Musicale conducted by the great Vittorio Gui which features Franco Tagliavini as Licinio and cult mezzo Oralia Dominguez as the Gran Vestale.

In 1933, Rosa Ponselle also appeared as Giulia at the Maggio Musicale, her only appearances in Italy; from 1925 to 1927 she had previously starred in all nine performances Spontini’s masterpiece has received by the Metropolitan Opera.

In addition to this Vestale, 1970 saw Scotto performing a number of operas much identified with Callas: La Sonnambula in Madrid, La Traviata in Verona, and Lucia di Lammermoor in Marseille, as well as her controversial debut in I Vespri Siciliani on La Scala’s opening night, the occasion of a widely-seen backstage photo of Scotto (still in costume) greeting Callas.

Spontini: La Vestale (in Italian)

Florence Maggio Musicale
5 May 1970

Giulia: Renata Scotto
Gran Vestale: Oralia Dominguez
Licinio: Franco Tagliavini
Cinna Mirto Picchi
Grande sacerdote: Graziano Del Vivo
Aruspice: Giorgio Giorgetti

Vittorio Gui, conductor