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SPONTINI: La Vestale

spacer Callas, Stignani; Corelli, Sordello, Rossi-Lemeni, Zaccaria; Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan, Votto. Text and translation. La Scala Memories 1 (2)

Recordings Vestale CD Cover 812

When Maria Callas opened the 1954–55 La Scala season in Spontini's La Vestale,the newly slender soprano had — under Luchino Visconti's directorial hand — fully developed the graceful body language and mesmerizing gestures and facial expressions that came to represent her physical acting style. The three-year, five-opera Callas– Visconti collaboration at La Scala began with this Vestale, a visually stunning production inspired by the paintings of Ingres, David and others. Its three acts were trimmed down to about two hours and ten minutes of music, given a dramatically intense reading by Antonino Votto and his cast.

La Scala has released a recording of the opening-night performance, packaged in a beautiful booklet, with some of the notes from the original program, a libretto mirroring the cut version and many photos taken during rehearsal — Callas is at her most riveting, embodying the character while in street clothes — and performance. This document boasts a wonderful cast, fine playing and conducting, excellent choral singing. The one caveat — and it's a major one — is that the sound quality of the recording verges on the unlistenable. Numerous releases over the years, all from this source, have appeared, first on pirate LP labels, then on CD. With this one, coming directly from La Scala, one hoped for something better; it remains one of the great mysteries of documented live opera that German houses, such as the Bayreuth Festival, were offering live-performance recordings of studio-quality sound at a time when La Scala was preserving the Callas legacy in fuzzy, distorted sonics. In this case, the poor quality tries even the endurance of an inveterate pirate-performance listener; it becomes difficult to recommend the set despite the loving care given to the packaging.

Callas is in prime vocal estate; if the role of the vestal virgin Giulia doesn't allow her the virtuoso vocal feats she achieved in her bel canto repertoire, it gives her plenty of opportunity to pour out floods of passionate sound. The great aria "Tu che invoco" remained in her concert programs for years afterward, and it's thrilling to hear it in the context of the piece. Elsewhere, Callas makes the strongest possible case for Spontini's opera, as she did with those of Gluck at La Scala, through impassioned recitative and an instinctive mastery of the style; the text is delivered with clarity and ravishing word coloration. 

Franco Corelli made his Scala debut that night as Giulia's love object, Licinio, a curiously low-lying role for this particular tenor, but one in which his passionate vocalism nonetheless found plenty of opportunity to make an impression. Visconti reportedly found Ebe Stignani's static, matronly stage persona appalling as he endeavored to create vibrant theater. Stignani's singing, however, is far from static. As La Gran Vestale, the veteran mezzo delivers, a few squally high notes aside, a thrilling reading of her lengthy Act I scena.Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, as the Pontiff, offers his customary vocal and dramatic authority and occasionally wayward intonation. Supporting roles are well handled by baritone Enzo Sordello and leading-basso-to-be Nicola Zaccaria. From the vigorous overture on, the Scala forces deliver impressively, and the chorus shines as well in its substantial role. 

One only wishes La Scala had managed to preserve this landmark evening in presentable sound. spacer


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