Paris had to wait for 160 years to see again La Vestale, a masterpiece from the First Empire, the missing link between the French lyric tragedy and the Romantic opera, and a hymn to the glory of Napoleon I. Its sheer inspiration has never been translated well onto the CD support, except for Maria Callas, but the sound recording was all too uncertain.
Thus, I was eager to see this Vestale for the first time on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées. The reunion was happy and somewhat disappointing at the same time, essentially because of ugly and clumsy directing, which showed an utter lack of ideas.
Éric Lacascade was directing his first opera, and he piled up the clichés: black panels at the back of the stage, timeless costumes, soldiers with heads shaved wearing tank tops and skin-tight pants. He takes figures from Roman Antiquity, necessarily hieratic and full of heroism, and turns them into 21st-century teenagers: thus, the vestals only wear short nightdresses, and the fight between the Roman general and the supreme pontiff, which was supposed to be grandiose, is reduced to a mere fistfight. I will not spoil the final ballet, but let it be said that it was one of the most hysterical fits of laughter I had in my operatic life.
On the other hand, the director knows that one of the main problems of opera is when the performers stand motionless at the front of the stage. He has thus decided to make them move as much as possible, even when it is useless or even grotesque. The beautiful lighting by Philippe Berthomé, especially during Act II, cannot conceal how much empty all this is. However, this production may be neither offensive nor boring, but at least, it does not interfere with the music.
The casting is much more satisfying, at least with our current stable of singers. La Vestale needs extraordinary performers, overflowing with charisma and with exceptional vocal capacities. Since the genre is almost extinct by now, it is pleasing enough to have, as is the case here, sensitive musicians, who know the style and the diction of French opera.
In a skimpy nightie, Ermonela Jaho is a nice musician, with a pretty tone, careful with her phrasing and her diction. She strains herself in the most vehement moments, but overall her performance is pleasing. Andrew Richards makes a rather pretty Licinius, depicted as a sexy thug, but he lacks power: his asides to Julia during the triumph scene are inaudible, which makes it difficult to follow the plot. As many other products of the American school, he has learnt to be careful with the hardest sounds of the French language (like the nasal vowels or the u), but he is careless in other places, making his pronunciation sloppy and almost vowel-less, which does not help to project it.
But there’s the rub: his right-hand-man and friend Cinna is played by the smashing Jean-François Borras, whose beautiful tone, metallic voice and diction far outshine his. I dare not think this wrong pick comes from the fact that this excellent tenor would have looked far less good in a leather leotard with tattoos on his muscled arms.
The Great Vestal’s imprecations are not suited for Béatrice Uria Monzon and her chaotic vocal line. Konstantin Gorny makes a rather banal Supreme Pontiff. It would have been better to see one of the last performances, for most of these problems will mitigate with time.
The Cercle de l’Harmonie, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer, has a very Mozartian clarity and transparency, but can still diversify atmospheres and colours.