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8.225310-11 - MERCADANTE: Vestale (La)
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Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870):
La vestale: Re-forming Myth

After the successful première of La vestale at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on 10th March 1840, the 44-yearold Saverio Mercadante was arguably second only to Donizetti in the field of Italian opera composers. Rossini had withdrawn in 1829, Bellini had died in 1835, and Verdi would not emerge as a forceful presence until his Nabucco two years later. Mercadante already had a string of recent successes that started with Il giuramento (1837) and continued through Le due illustri rivali (1838), Elena da Feltre (1839), and Il bravo (1839), and La vestale too had an enthusiastic reception: in its first five years it travelled to Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and at least 32 Italian cities. Some critics, including the illustrious Verdi scholar, Frank Walker, regard it as Mercadante’s masterpiece. Its librettist, Salvatore Cammarano (1801-1852), was one of the most celebrated of his day. In fashioning the libretto he seems to have been most influenced by two sources: La vestale by Etienne de Jouy and Gaspare Spontini (Paris Opéra, 1807) — both Cammarano and Mercadante surely attended productions of this work at the San Carlo as early as the 1810s — and the scenario of Salvatore Viganò’s ballet La vestale (La Scala, 1818). Spontini’s opera had the time-honoured lieto fine, or happy ending, featuring a spectacular storm in which a bolt of lightning provides a sign from heaven by re-igniting the flame. In 1840 this was no longer an option; Cammarano followed Viganò’s ballet closely here except for one small detail: in the ballet Emilia is entombed and Decio, at first pleading with the High Priest then attempting to attack him, is cut down by the guards, rather than committing suicide.

Walker has suggested that the story of Aida, with its triumphal march and entombment scene, ‘released from [Verdi’s] subconscious mind fairly numerous reminiscences of La vestale, which had lain there since 1840-41’. The only reminiscence cited, however, that I find not merely coincidental is the close resemblance of the High Priestess’s phrase ‘de’ Galli vincitor’ (in the first recitative) to Amneris’s ‘Ritorna vincitor’, and we should not make too much of it. I prefer here to point out a few ways in which Mercadante’s Vestale is different from Verdi, less square and less conventional (but not necessarily better on that account). Let us trace a few strands from the most quoted paragraph Mercadante ever wrote, from a letter of 1838 about his ‘reform operas’ in general, and Elena da Feltre in particular: ‘I have continued the revolution begun with Il giuramento; forms varied, trivial cabalettas banished, crescendos exiled, vocal lines simplified, fewer repeats, some new things in the cadences, emphasis on the drama, orchestra rich but without overpowering the voices, no long solos in the ensembles — which force the other parts to stand coldly by to the detriment of the action, not much bass drum, and very little brass band’. The vocal lines are indeed simplified: there are no passages of coloratura, not even in Emilia’s little mad scene in the final duet. The vocal excesses of Verdi’s Abigaille or Lady Macbeth are not for her or any of the other characters.

If Mercadante’s ‘forms varied’ may refer to the form of the opera as a whole, it is significant that La vestale includes only three solo numbers. Giunia has an exquisitely orchestrated prayer at the beginning of Act II, and later in the act Metello Pio has a splendidly lugubrious minor-mode aria with chorus, unusual for the time in that it refuses to end in the brighter major mode. Only Publio is given a so-called ‘double aria’, one with both a slow movement (here an Andante sostenuto in which he pleads with Licinio) and a cabaletta (in which, following Licinio’s refusal, he rouses the troops). Normally, each ‘star singer’ would be entitled to a ‘double aria’ — in Il trovatore (1853), to pick a familiar example, the soprano has two, the tenor and baritone one each. But remarkably, neither Emilia or Decio has any extended solo number. Where one would expect Emilia to have an aria, right before her Act II duet, as in Spontini, there is just recitative. As for Decio, as the dying hero he sings two matching lyrical four-bar phrases, threatening a full-scale slow movement, but his line then disintegrates, eventually mustering a mere six bars of recitative. All four duets depart in some ways from what an 1859 treatise on Verdi famously termed the ‘solita forma de’ duetti’ (the usual form of duets): a ‘tempo d’attacco’ (initial movement, generally establishing the points of view of the two characters), slow movement, ‘tempo di mezzo’ (middle movement), and cabaletta. The ‘tempo d’attacco’, especially before Verdi, often includes a section where the two characters have parallel statements of similar lyrical music before breaking into more rapid dialogue. In keeping with Mercadante’s ‘reform’ tendencies, each of these duets, though recognizable as a variant of the ‘solita forma’ lacks some elements. That is, the more introspective duets of Emilia and Giunia lack the ‘tempo d’attacco’, perhaps because they are already so close in spirit that an entire movement emphasizing dialogue to set out conflicting points of view is hardly necessary. These consist of a slow movement, a middle movement and a cabaletta. On the other hand, the Decio/Publio and Decio/Emilia duets forego the lyrical contemplative slow movement, moving instead from the initial ‘tempo d’attacco’ movement directly into an energetic cabaletta. Whether a particular cabaletta is ‘trivial’ or not is a matter of personal taste, but there can be no doubt that those in La vestale are unconventional, far more so than most in early Verdi operas.

Another area in which Mercadante introduces ‘some peculiarities that break the normal procedures’, to use his phrase from another letter, is the melodic construction. For example, almost all melodies in this period, including Verdi’s, begin with a ‘thematic block’ of two similar four-bar phrases, but the cabalettas of the Decio/Publio and the Act III Emilia/Giunia duets do not — the opening phrase is not repeated. Moreover, even when the second phrase is a varied repetition of the first, Mercadante often plays with the phrase structure — the six-bar phrase answering the initial four-bar phrase of the Vestal Virgins’ theme song, the three-plus-three-bar phrases of the cabaletta of Publio’s aria, the six-plussix- bar phrases of the cabaletta of the Emilia/Decio duet, and so on.

But we should not leave La vestale without commenting on what may be its strongest features, the big-boned pieces involving soloists and chorus. In his review of the Parisian première, A. Specht wrote of the Act I finale that ‘if the rest of the opera were up to the level of that beautiful adagio, Mercadante would not need fear comparison […] with any composer in Europe’. To Specht the stretta of this finale seemed, on the other hand, ‘very ordinary’. I was tempted to rush to the rescue, countering his characterization by detailing subtleties in the phrase structure or by claiming that the excruciating banality of the official Roman music was an exquisitely ironic commentary on the concept of Rome, but in the end I think I do not want to argue with him. Unless one wants to listen to the two or three perfect operas over and over again without respite — not my idea of heaven, certainly — one must take the merely passable or even bad bits along with the excellent.

David Rosen

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