Vestale, La(ii) (‘The Vestal Virgin’)
- Michael Rose
(‘The Vestal Virgin’)
Tragedia lirica in three acts by Saverio Mercadante to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano; Naples, Teatro S Carlo, 10 March 1840.
This is one of Mercadante’s most consistently interesting works, and has been regarded by some as his masterpiece. The story is much as in Spontini’s opera, but Cammarano was able to ignore the happy ending forced on Jouy by French convention. A modern audience, however, will probably be reminded more of Verdi’s Aida (1871) than Spontini’s La vestale.
The opera opens in the Sacred Grove, where the Chief Vestal (soprano) announces the return of Decio [Decius] (tenor), a military hero formerly believed to have been killed in the Gallic wars. Among the Vestal virgins is Emilia (Spontini’s Julia, mezzo-soprano), who was in love with Decius but became a Vestal on hearing of his death; his unexpected reappearance throws her into a torment of emotion, which turns to agony when, in a triumph scene of Verdian splendour, it is she who has to crown him as victor. In Act 2 Emilia is entrusted by the Chief Vestal with the guardianship of the sacred flame, but Decius has concealed himself in the temple and, during the passionate love duet which follows, the flame is allowed to go out. Decius escapes, but Emilia is left to face the wrath of the High Priest (bass). The last act concerns Emilia’s trial. While the women of the populace plead for mercy, the priests, in chorus, call inexorably for her execution: she is led in, there is a brief, affecting mad scene and she is buried alive. Decius, who has raised a revolt in an attempt to save her, arrives too late and kills himself on her tomb. (It is characteristic of Mercadante’s attitude to the drama throughout this work that, after stabbing himself, Decius is allowed only eight bars of a final aria before breaking off and dying in a few fragments of recitative.)...