La Vestale, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris – review

Whatever the merits of Spontini’s best known work in shaping later operas, it has become a star vehicle that stands or falls on the quality of the lead soprano. Maria Callas stamped her indelible mark on the role in the 1950s and there have been few singers with enough guts to take on the challenge since.

Enter Albania’s Ermonela Jaho as Julia, the vestal virgin who goes weak at the knees over Licinius the Roman general and lets the sacred fire go out, a sacrilegious slip that earns her the death penalty. Jaho oozes velvety tone and looks the part but her own fire wavers when she tries to make the dramatic diva effects we associate with Callas. Her tuning goes haywire above the stave in her big number “Toi, que j’implore” and her breath control is variable. A plucky performance but low on the essential wow factor.

Licinius is Andrew Richards, an eccentric choice for a tenor more usually cast in heavier roles such as Parsifal. He sings solidly and has acceptable French but as soon as French-born Jean-François Borras’ Cinna opens his mouth, you sense who is more in tune with the idiom. There are more exotic effects when Russia’s Konstantin Gorny sallies forth with charcoal Slav tone as the Pontifex Maximus.

Intendant Michel Franck is to be commended for championing neglected French repertoire but he needs to tighten up casting. Nor is the choice of opera virgin Eric Lacascade a happy one. Like most straight theatre directors, he tries too hard to make his presence felt, injecting movement where none is required. La Vestale is not exactly fertile ground for a producer’s imagination but going off the rails is hardly the solution: Cinna’s soft shoe shuffle gait and some comical movements from extras have shades of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Jérémie Rhorer conducts his original instrument band Le Cercle de L’Harmonie with buckets of youthful vim and vigour, a strong pitch to supply the star quality Jaho lacks. He successfully highlights Spontini’s key role as a bridge between Gluck and Rossini but a glut of wispy phrasing and excessive tapering tends to bleach the melodic line – the overture was almost unrecognisable – while his rapid tempi turn enunciation of the text into a tongue-twisting exercise. Even so, the splendid chorus – Choeur Aedes – rise to the challenge, providing the most rewarding singing of the evening. More of them soon, please.

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