As celebrations of the Maria Callas centennial year continue, each commemorative event becomes even more profound and impactful when it is historically significant for the iconic singer as well as for opera in general. This is precisely what Stefanos Koroneos, General and Artistic Director of Teatro Grataciello did in choosing to honor Callas with Gaspare Spontini’s La Vestale on October 28 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. In reviving the version of the opera that Callas sang at La Scala in 1954, not only did Teatro Grataciello memorialize an important milestone in La Divina’s career, but it also broke the one-hundred-year spell of this opera not being performed in New York City. La Vestale was last heard at the Metropolitan Opera only once in November 1926, starring Rosa Ponselle. Maria Callas, who had been born in New York City and lived here until the age of thirteen, was almost three years old at the time. No one could imagine then that she would become the greatest advocate of this opera, and deservedly so, as many discovered on Saturday evening.
Indra Thomas as Giulia, Eric Lindsey as Il Sommo Sacerdote, and Tahanee Aluwihare as La Gran Vestale in Spontini’s La Vestale – Teatro Grattacielo, October 28, 2023
A mere few minutes into the overture, it is clear that one is in the presence of musical greatness. Melodies abound, modulating between major and minor, between sorrow and exuberance with lament-like inflections, all on a canvas of textural richness within a stately, majestic musical frame. Here, as throughout the entire opera, there are echoes of Mozart, Gluck, Vivaldi, and that other lesser-performed vehicle for the Callas genius, Cherubini’s Medea. Despite these influences, La Vestale has its own unique musical imprint and colorings; it is a composition of grandeur, intimacy, and transcendence, distinctive in some of its modulations and dramatically effective in the marriage of music and text. Spontini, who spent a lot of time in Paris and Berlin and who adapted Gluck’s tragédies lyriques for the contemporary taste of Parisian audiences, composed La Vestale to a French libretto. The work premiered to great acclaim in 1807 at the Académie Impériale de Musique (Paris opera). It took a certain vision and boldness for an opera composer of the era to musically convey complex sentiments, turbulence of passion, and purity of innocence and weave them together within the form of the tragédie lyrique. And it takes a sensitive, astute conductor to balance out these aspects without sliding into exaggeration while delineating each facet in the gamut between violent emotion and restrained elegance. On Saturday evening, Maestro Christian Capocaccia succeeded at that brilliantly throughout the entire opera. He proved a perceptive, skillful conductor, supportive of the singers and attentive to highlighting textural details in the orchestral score with both delicacy and verve.
Thomas Kinch as Licinio in Spontini’s La Vestale – Teatro Grattacielo, October 28, 2023
As Giulia, the role that Maria Callas sang, Indra Thomas displayed a seasoned vocal and artistic expertise in shaping Spontini’s soaring phrases and infusing them with dramatic effects in the right moments. Alternating between sheer vocal power and reserved noblesse expressed in creamy tones and nuanced dynamics, Thomas created a moving, sincere, regal Giulia. In the best-known aria of the opera, “Tu che invoco con orrore”, she managed to navigate the challenging phrases well in her lustrous soprano voice, evoking at once the emotional conflict between her terrified, pleading awe and warm tenderness for the Roman General, Licinio. The fire and passion in the aria’s second part came across with visceral urgency in her voice as well as in the orchestra. In the duet with Licinio, the soprano’s ability to color text was at its most refined, and the ardent love between the two clashing against her inner conflict made for a thrilling dramatic scene. Throughout the second better-known aria, “O nume tutelar”, Thomas revealed a range of mesmerizing, sorrowful, soulful vocal colors that deepened the complexity of her outstanding performance in this role.
Thomas Kinch offered an electrifying portrayal of Licinio. His heroic, generous sound and the exciting shimmer of his high notes infused the character with passion, virility, and courage. In the duet with Indra Thomas, Kinch displayed sweetness of tone and impeccable legato. His confrontation with Il Sommo Sacerdote—the High Priest—proved to be a show-stopping scene. Kinch’s stentorian tenor sparring with the imposing bass of Eric Lindsey—whose impressive vocality molded the High Priest into a forbidding, authoritarian, chilling figure—made for hair-raising drama. And in the First Act opening duo, Kinch’s voice blended flawlessly with the velvet sound of baritone Kyle Oliver. Oliver who sang Cinna, Licinio’s friend, conveyed nobility in suave elegance of tones and phrasing. The “friendship” duet between tenor and baritone, in which the tenor confesses to loving someone unattainable and the baritone consoles him and pledges to stand by him, would become all too familiar in opera (Don Carlos, anyone?). Kinch and Oliver succeeded beautifully in expressing the bond of friendship that the music represents so gracefully.
Kyle Oliver as Cinna, Thomas Kinch as Licinio, Indra Thomas as Giulia, Tahanee Aluwihare as La Gran Vestale, and Eric Lindsey as Il Sommo Sacerdote in Spontini’s La Vestale – Teatro Grattacielo, October 28, 2023
As La Gran Vestale, Tahanee Aluwihare spun phrases of silky sound tinged with shades of darkness in her ominous warnings to Giulia. Aluwihare’s declamato was excellent as she used the articulation and coloring of the text to great dramatic impact. The chorus, that included students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, blended together stunningly, at times unified into what seemed like an otherworldly entity that supported the action and deepened the interplay between the sacred, the ritualistic, and the human aspects of the story.
Stefanos Koroneos’s decision to direct this opera as a semi-staged production was brilliant. As the evening progressed and the tension of the plot increased, the voices and the orchestra were more than enough to pull the spectators into the drama; the music simply swept away the need for any other stimulation. That’s not to say that the projections by Lydia Venieri were not a compelling addition. Ethereal images of Greek temples and mythological symbols enhanced the experience without being disruptive. The dreamy visuals enacted the tale on an abstract level to remind the audience of the ancient mysticism and archetypal forces that the opera channels.
On Saturday evening, it wasn’t necessary to be a Maria Callas devotee to appreciate the historical significance of this performance. For those who are Maria Callas fans, the awe-inspiring constellation of milestones celebrated by this production mattered immensely. And to be a witness to it all was historic in itself.
Top photo: Indra Thomas as Giulia in Spontini’s La Vestale – Teatro Grattacielo, October 28, 2023
Photo credits : Gustavo Mirabile and DoChong Tom