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Spontini: La Vestale / Votto, Callas, Corelli, Sordello

Spontini / Votto / Visconti / Callas / Corelli
Release Date: 04/24/2012 
Label:  La Scala   Catalog #: 1  
Composer:  Gasparo Spontini
Performer:  Enzo SordelloNicola Rossi-LemeniEbe StignaniFranco Corelli,   ... 
Conductor:  Antonino Votto
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala OrchestraMilan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SPONTINI La vestale Antonino Votto, cond; Maria Callas ( Giulia ); Ebe Stignani ( Gran Vestale ); Franco Corelli ( Licinio ); Enzo Sordello ( Cinna ); Nicola Rossi Lemeni ( Sommo Sacerdote ); La Scala Op Ch & O TEATRO ALLA SCALA MEMORIES 1 (2 CDs: Read more 131:20) Live: Milan 12/7/1954

For those who are familiar with this recording, you need to read this review. Do not skip it. For those who are not familiar with it, you also need to read it, although for different reasons.

Those familiar with this recording are, by and large, Callas fanatics, and their general feeling is that it is an unlistenable piece of garbage. Recorded by house tape recorders on a night when there was an electrical short in the system, the orchestra and chorus have always sounded clear and full while the solo singers sound pinched, metallic, nasal, and grating, with a highly offensive electrical buzz in the mid-low range. The first time I heard it, on a Melodram CD release back in the mid 1980s, I thought the fault was theirs; Melodram wasn’t exactly known for first-class sound quality. But every time I’ve heard it since, it has sounded just as bad. In fact, I hold right this moment in my hands a copy of Istituto Discografico Italiano’s 2003 rerelease (IDIS 6425/26), which boasted 24-bit digital remastering. It, too, sounds like garbage. I tried to help it a bit by removing some of the hum and boosting the midrange and bass, but even then the result was pretty awful. I even sent it to audio wizard Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical a few years ago to see what he could do with it. His verdict was that, every time he tried to remove the patina of noise and get to the music, sound artifacts remained that made the final result just as bad if not worse.

On the inside second page of the extremely lavish hardcover book that accompanies this release (more on that in a moment), there is only one name credited who may have had something to do with the remastering, “Production Manager Joelle Williams.” I don’t know if Williams is the actual engineer for this rerelease, or if she was helped by her associate producer, Marine Rougnon, but whatever the case this performance of Vestale has never sounded this good. Since this is its first official release under the auspices of the theater in which the performance took place, I’m positive that they had access to the original tape, whereas everybody else (including Istituto Discografico Italiano) probably had to make do with dubs (even if very good dubs). But that this source had the same problems as the ones I’ve heard is indisputable: I put on CD 2, track 4, which is the long tenor-soprano duet that begins “Giulia! … È la voce!” and could still hear that damn hum in the background. But now, it was really in the background and, wonder of wonders, Franco Corelli’s voice could actually be heard, not just sensed through a wall of electrical noise and sputter, and the same for Maria Callas. What was once an unlistenable artifact has now become at least respectable. No, you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but now it’s at least a suede purse. They’ve made real progress.

But why should those of you who may not be rabid Callas fans want this recording? For the simple reason that, overlooking its faults—which include deep and numerous cuts in the score in addition to the mediocre mono sound—this is the greatest recorded performance of an opera that has received very little respect and gotten very little interest over the past two centuries. Truthfully, a book needs to be written about what I call the “dramatic school of opera” that arose with Gluck’s reforms in the late 18th century, even influencing his colleague Mozart, and that continued in France by Méhul and largely Italian composers such as Cherubini and Spontini (you might also throw in Beethoven, since his Leonore/Fidelio was heavily influenced by both Méhul and Cherubini), and in the end had a tremendous influence on the history of opera post- bel canto . While it is true that both Beethoven and Berlioz admired Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Berlioz and Wagner admired Bellini’s Norma and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, these latter two operas were themselves hybrids of the dramatic and bel canto styles. In fact, Norma was a direct descendant of Vestale— their plots are remarkably similar—although when it was revived at the Metropolitan Opera for Rosa Ponselle in 1925 it was thought of as a warm-up for Norma, somehow giving the impression that Spontini was a less talented composer. But this is not the case. He was, in fact, extremely adept at creating orchestrations that, while using a standard opera orchestra of his time, could simulate organs, wind bands, and even thunder. With these impressive effects under his fingers, Spontini could create a theatrical experience even greater than those of Gluck, who preceded him, or almost as good as those of Berlioz, who followed him. Like Gluck, Spontini also wrote in long scenes, in which the music morphed from lyric to dramatic and sometimes back again, raising the dramatic temperature in the theater with sweeping moments of power and drama without resorting to the formulaic lyric-aria-followed-by-a-rapid-cabaletta, which became the standard operatic form of the bel canto boys.

In fact, I became hooked on the music of Vestale from Ponselle’s original 1926 78-rpm disc of the two great arias from act II, “Tu che invoco” and “O nume tutelar.” In both, Ponselle’s 1920s voice, at its freshest, most beautiful, and with elegantly sculpted lines and incomparable vocal coloring, made a tremendous impression on me. Callas, of course, was a different animal; in her own words, her voice was “a cheap violin of unknown manufacture, played by a virtuoso.” Here, she is very much the virtuoso; in fact, this performance and that of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride define for me the absolute essence of Callas’s greatness as an artist. Yes, you can also toss the Berlin Lucia and almost any of her highly individual (but not really score-faithful) performances of Cherubini’s Medea, into the mix, but I for one always return to this Vestale as proof of her greatness. It was later sung by sopranos who were in their own ways great artists, Leyla Gencer and Régine Crespin, but as good as they were they don’t match the grandeur and sweep that Callas presents here.

And not just Callas. Ebe Stignani, 50 years old at the time and somewhat past her best days, nevertheless dug in and produced one of the most thrilling performances of her career. Franco Corelli, who was not yet “the” Corelli of sloppy styling and dragged-out high notes, gave an intense, angst-ridden interpretation of Licinio. Rossi-Lemeni, one of the greatest singing actors of his day, was the High Priest. Enzo Sordello, another outstanding actor, played the role of Cinna. And Antonio Votto, not normally known for the tautness and drive of his conducting, gave here the single most intense performance of his life.

I often wondered about Votto’s outstanding performance here, until I learned that Arturo Toscanini had attended the rehearsals and the performance. Small wonder the orchestra played with such intensity! The musicians probably took one look, saw Toscanini, thought to themselves “Oh, per Dio!” (or perhaps “Basta!”), and then played as if their lives depended on it. It sure sounds like it.

And now that you can actually hear the performance, it’s a great one. Listen particularly to the faster passage (I can’t really call it a cabaletta, because it doesn’t contain rapid scale-work or trills) that follows the majestic aria “Tu che invoco,” and notice how Spontini builds his orchestra in such a way that the music practically thunders off the walls of La Scala. That’s the kind of orchestration I was referring to, which so strongly influenced Berlioz and Wagner.

My only complaint is that they cut roughly a third of the score—more in acts II and III, but also in act I. Yet they left the full 10-minute ballet music in the first act! That would only have made sense if this were a Paris revival; after all, it was their convention to insist on a ballet in every opera (clear up to Verdi’s Otello, if you can believe it), but never an Italian tradition. I wonder why? They don’t discuss that in the book accompanying the recordings, but the inclusion of the ballet is another plus for this issue.

La Scala Memories doesn’t just give you a deluxe box set with one of those little but super-thick librettos. Oh, no. They package this opera in a hardcover book, 7.6 inches high by 5.6 inches wide, that runs 100 pages. The book includes the original program notes from this performance, an article on Spontini’s masterpiece, and pages and pages of photos of Callas, the cast, director Visconti, Votto, Toscanini, and Victor de Sabata. In some of the stage photos of Callas, her poses give one a tremendous feeling of presence, of the way she sculpted her stage demeanor, the way you can hear she sculpted her vocal lines. And was she ever in great voice! In fact, now that the sound has been corrected somewhat, what I hear is that Scala probably used two microphones, one above the orchestra pit that captured full, natural sound, and another right above the singers, which had a short in it and was too close to them, which caused the overload and blasting.

The music they kept in act I seems to have been largely choral—there’s another anomaly, why keep choral scenes and not more solo lines? But let’s face it, it’s the past, it’s over, and you can’t cry over spilled milk. Just be happy that La Scala has finally resuscitated one of the greatest nights the theater has ever seen. This set is selling on Amazon for $42.60, and it’s worth every single penny.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

La Vestale by Gasparo Spontini
Performer:  Enzo Sordello (Baritone), Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Bass), Ebe Stignani (Mezzo Soprano),
Franco Corelli (Tenor), Maria Callas (Soprano)
Conductor:  Antonino Votto
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Teatro alla Scala Orchestra,  Milan Teatro alla Scala Chorus
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1807; Paris, France 
Date of Recording: 12/07/1954 
Venue:  Live  La Scala Theater, Milan, Italy 
Language: Italian 

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