Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851) was an Italian opera composer who spent many years in Paris and later in Berlin. His best-known opera, La Vestale, was first performed in Paris in 1807.
In this opera Licinius, a victorious Roman general, returns to Rome in triumph only to discover that his fiancée, Julia, had given hope of ever seeing him again and was now a Vestal Virgin, a priestess of the goddess Vesta who had taken a vow of chastity for thirty years.
When Licinius visits Julia at the temple one night, they are so busy singing love duets that she lets the sacred fire go out. For this she is sentenced to death, but the rule is that she has to take off her white shawl and lay it on the altar. If it spontaneously catches fire, that is a sign that the goddess has pardoned her, otherwise she has to die. Of course it does catch fire — one of her colleagues puts a torch to it while no one is looking — so Julia and Licinius can get married and live happily ever after.
In October 2013 I saw a marvelous production of La Vestale at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, with the American tenor Andrew Richards as Licinius and the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Julia. The singing, acting and staging were all superb, and the happy ending really did look happy, with the chorus chasing the loving couple around the stage to the strains of Spontini’s ballet music.
The white smoke on these opera posters is the smoke from the burning shawl which proves that the goddess has pardoned Julia.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, 2006 and 2013
All you loyal readers of my post Ten days, eight operas, seven venues might recall that one of the eight operas I saw on a ten-day visit to Paris in 2006 was Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), as staged by André Engel here at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Well, in 2013 I went back and saw the same opera in the same theater — but in a completely different production with a different cast. Musically it was again first-rate and the audience was very enthusiastic, with prolonged rhythmic clapping at the final bows. A great thing for me was that two old acquaintances from Frankfurt were in the cast this time: Miah Persson as Donna Elvira and Daniel Behle as Don Ottavio.
(Both of them have come as guests to my opera appreciation courses. Miah Persson came to Frankfurt OperaTalk in 2002, and Daniel Behle came to my German-language opera course Opern-Gespräche in 2007.)
As I have mentioned in my post on the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861–1929), the Art Nouveau bas-reliefs on the façade of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées were made by Bourdelle between 1910 and 1913. The inspiration for this one, La Musique, is said to have been a performance of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in 1912, with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the rôle of the faun.
Despite its name, this theater is not located on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but a few blocks away on Avenue Montaigne near the Place de l’Alma on the right bank of the Seine.
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.