Leyla Gencer’s Great “La Vestale”

Vestale front

SPONTINI: La Vestale / Leyla Gencer, soprano (Giulia); Renato Bruson, baritone (Cinna); Franca Mattiucci, mezzo (La Gran Vestale); Robleto Merolla, tenor (Licinius); Augusto Ferrin, bass (La Gran Sacerdote); Enrico Campi, bass (Un Console); Sergio Sisti, bass (Chief Aruspice); Teatro Massimo di Palermo Chorus & Orch.; Fernando Previtali, conductor / Living Stage LS 4035163 or available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: Palermo, December 4, 1969)

Gaspare Spontini has to be the unluckiest important opera composer who ever lived. In an era where every piece of garbage that Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini ever wrote is rescued from it deserved oblivion, staged and then recorded and issued on CD and/or DVD, poor Spontini gets very little respect. Of his 11 surviving operas, of which the first two were, by his own admission, junk written for the Italian market, only six have been recorded, and only four of those with good casts, complete, and in their original language.

Unfortunately, La Vestale, his first really important opera and one of the most influential works in the history of the art form, is not one of them. Yes, there is a note-for-note complete recording in the original French with good conducting by Riccardo Muti, but the vocal cast was woefully inadequate to project the towering drama that the music calls for. There is another recording in French, but it’s incomplete and the soprano in that version, Michèle le Bris, is only marginally better than Muti’s soprano, Karen Huffstodt.

This leaves us with the “pirate” performances, all of them incomplete and most in Italian. The most famous of these is the 1954 La Scala production with a superb cast—Maria Callas, Ebe Stignani, Franco Corelli, Enzo Sordello and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni—but the sound is so distorted that it’s difficult to listen to with any pleasure.

Thus, when I ran across this live Palermo performance from 1969, I was delighted. Although the sound is typical for an Italian broadcast of the period, being rather dry mono, the performance is absolutely superb, and the sound is clear enough to give one a good impression of how this music should be sung and conducted.

Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer didn’t have the most beautiful voice in the world, and by 1969 she had picked up a flutter (not quite a wobble) which she retained for the rest of her career, but she understood the tempestuous nature of Giulia’s character as well as Callas did and her supporting cast is nearly as good. The one little-known singer on here is tenor Robleto Merolla. He had a large, cutting spinto voice, not too dissimilar from that of Mario del Monaco, but he was far less crude and blustery in his delivery. His singing can also be heard on the excellent live Norma (the opera that took over Vestale’s place by using an almost identical plot) with soprano Cristina Deutekom. Apparently, he retired at the height of his career, without having made any commercial recordings, in order to teach. The others—mezzo Franca Mattiucci, baritone Renato Bruson and bass Augusto Ferrin—were well-known and respected Italian singers of their day. and their contributions to this performance are superb.

Yet since the original CD issue of this recording is out of print, and its upload on YouTube is marred by poor sound as well as the annoying introductions to each act by operatic drag queen James Jorden (under the pseudonym of “La Cieca”), I have done all of my loyal readers a favor and uploaded my cleaned-up version of this recording on the Internet Archive. Just click on the link in the header, and you will be whisked by magic carpet to the site of this operatic marvel.


—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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