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S & H Opera Review

Spontini, La Vestale, ENO, April 2002 (MB)

Spontini’s dreary opera (inexplicably admired by Berlioz, amongst others) received at ENO a rather dreary performance. The pedestrianism of the action makes for a dull evening, and even in this cut-down version one longed for something shorter. Apart from a few chorus scenes (static in presentation), the on stage action is minimal. It made for an evening of narcoleptic numbness, and was not helped by some fragile singing from the ‘star’ singer, Jane Eaglen, regrettably miscast in her first reappearance in an opera role at her old house since Ariadne auf Naxos.

Maria Callas specialised in the role of Julia, but Eaglen neither matches her in vocal or dramatic skills. Only in her Act II aria did Eaglen display any of the vocal command for which her Wagnerian tone is ideally suited. Elsewhere, her pitch was suspect and the vocal line was distorted by an incessant wavering. Dramatically, Eaglen moved around stage like a carthorse, and can surely be few people’s idea of a Vestal. This was an Isolde in all but name. This was in many respects a performance where belief had to be well and truly suspended, and in reality never really was.

Act I opens with the ‘triumphant’ return of Licinius (routinely sung by John Hudson) but everything about this opening scene with an army of stragglers lounging around on stage lacked momentum and drama. He night just have well have been returning home from an evening at the local public house. The fact that both Hudson and Paul Nilon (as Cinna) hacked their way through the dialogue of their Scene I duet with unrelenting dullness made the effort of the listener an interminable one. The entry of the Vestals did little to sublimate this stark sense of isolation.

The staging at least made some amends for weaknesses elsewhere. Minimalist in design, it was strangely appropriate for an opera which makes Parsifal look like a sprint by comparison. The design’s simplicity did indeed owe much to early post war Bayreuth stagings of the Parsifal where use of light and the imagination are focal points for a viewer’s enjoyment of the opera. If it didn’t quite work in that way here, it was at least pleasing to the eye, not least the changing emphasis on light, moving from a chilling blue to a warm glowing red. There was no busyness, which can so often deflect from the on stage action, but in the case of an opera where the latter is decidedly sparse anyway it really didn’t matter. Moments such as the lowering of the ring in Act II were beautifully done, even if one anticipated some impending disaster to liven things up a little.

Musically, the playing of the ENO orchestra under David Parry was lacklustre. One often wished for a Riccardo Muti to establish a sense of pace, but that was never forthcoming. In total, one of the most dispiriting evenings in an opera house for some years made more bearable by interval drinks.

Marc Bridle

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