Saverio Mercadante: La Vestale (1840)

Opera in tre atti. Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes.

I wrote this review two years ago. It is probably one of my shortest.

SETTING: Ancient Rome, during the Gallic Wars. Essentially the same as the Spontini opera except with a tragic ending for our lovers Emilia (soprano) and Decio (tenor). Both are outfitted with friends, Giunia (mezzo-soprano) and Publio (baritone) who both attempt to get their friends out of trouble in various ways. Decio is a soldier and son of Licinio Murena (tenor, and yes, he has the same name as the Decio character in the Spontini opera). Thought to have died in battle, Emilia became a vestal out of the conviction that he was dead. There are also the High Priest (bass) and the High Vestal (mezzo-soprano) as well as the consul Lucio Silano (bass). The opera is divided into ten musical numbers.


ACT 1: A sacred wood outside the Temple of Vesta. (36 minutes)

2: Salve, o dea protettrice di Roma After some gentle preluding (apart from a trumpet voluntary), the opening chorus of Vestals (a prayer in fact) ** to the same gently rocking melody.

10: Ben ti compianto An equally gentle duet between Emilia and Giunia * as the former bemoans her fate, (sworn virgin, about to discover that her lover is still alive after). For over one-tenth of the score (a ten minute long scene), it is probably its low point.

16: Plauso al Duce vincitore The warriors arrive to some odd scampering chorusing, but the women come back with their rocking melody which saves things *. It ends mildly furiously.

21: Quanto mi cinge A tranquille octet ** as Decio and Emilia realize the mistake she has made. The stretta is a bit more furious and grand, but the two stars will make do.

31: È la patria, è Roma Publio tells Decio that trying to have the vows Emilia has taken as a vestal revoked is crazy in a duet which takes a few to heat up but finally does come to a racing conclusion ** by which time Publio promises to help Decio get into the temple and see Emilia alone.

ACT 2: (35 minutes)

Scene 1: The temple of Vesta, before the sacred fire.

1: Se fino al cielo ascendere After a prelude which is a cross between church organ music and the 7th Beethoven Symphony, Giunia prays for Emilia * as the High Vestal tells the latter not to let the fire go out or everything will go wrong.

9: No, l’acciar non fu spietato The confrontational duet for the lovers **. Again, slow start saved by a racing, exciting finish curtesy of the orchestra. The fire goes out and Publio comes on to warn Decio that the High Priest is coming.

17: Versate amare lagrime The furious aria of the High Priest ** as he orders that Emilia be taken for trial and condemnation (the chorus and orchestra really help here).

Scene 2: Same as Act 1.

28: Essa ignara io penetrai Decio threats his father (the judge who condemns Emilia to death for the loss of the fire) to commit suicide if Emilia is not released from her vows and married to him. This forms a musical climax (probably the finest moment in the score as the act ends) **. Giunia attempts to be killed instead of Emilia, but this is refused even by Emilia, and Decio is disowned by his father for his continued love for Emilia.

ACT 3: Outside the tomb. (25 minutes)

0: Il Console ci ascolti A stormy opening male chorus as Licinio comes on **.

2: Egli il governo Publio pleads with Licinio to consider that his son is going to commit suicide if Emilia is executed **. A strangely placid aria for such a dire petition.

12: Ah questa vittima Emilia is brought out in a grand chorus to be killed (there is a trace of Le due lustri rivale in the tenor-bass chorus) **.

16: Amica infelice! Emilia and Giunia try to comfort each other before the end comes **. Emilia is buried alive, Decio arrives too late and commits suicide to a theme from the overture. Curtain.


The brevity and economy of the work is its great strength, as there is very little padding (two choruses and an aria). There is musical inspiration here, but it is mostly subdued. Perhaps this subtly is the reason the opera was so successful and survived as long as it did? Although the music is very good, none of it is amazing. Gone are the grand dramatic crescendos of Il Giuramento or even what will return in Orazi e Curiazi. The unhappy ending distinguishes this from Spontini effectively enough. The hardest thing about this opera is getting excited about it because there is nothing here to be excited about. A tight alpha minus.

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