Opera Rara’s mission to unearth and record neglected works of the nineteenth century continues apace – notably so with this concert staging of Donizetti’s re-working of his Italian opera Poliuto for the Paris Opéra. Poliuto itself is hardly a staple of the repertoire, though it does see the occasional revival, and indeed is scheduled for Glyndebourne next summer.
Les Martyrs was first staged in Paris in 1840, with only modest success. It had a few performances three years later, and an Italian translation (as I Martiri) was performed in the 1850s, before the work disappeared totally. It follows in the line of Halevy’s La Juive, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and presages Verdi’s (French) Don Carlos. The Parisian taste of the time was for long works, spectacular settings, and incorporating ballet. Les Martyrs fits the bill. There are murky catacombs, triumphant Roman processions, big finales, and ultimately the hero and heroine are seen expecting to be torn apart by hungry lions before a bloodthirsty crowd and vengeful priests in a Roman amphitheatre.
Although this performance was very much of the concert variety, with the singers all nursing their scores and with no distracting lighting effects, there was still a whiff of greasepaint in the auditorium. The opera takes a little while to get into its dramatic stride but once the final two Acts are reached the action starts to develop pace and intensity. Prior to this there is much scene-setting, but Donizetti’s ever-tuneful and ever-inventive orchestration provides much to enjoy, even though his natural Italianata is muted in favour of a more declamatory style, coloratura used sparingly and to greater dramatic point.
The musicians of the Paris Opéra at the time must have been a prodigiously talented bunch – for there are many passages requiring virtuoso instrumentalists, particularly lower woodwind, brass (including off-stage) and harps. The OAE played with spirit and relish under Mark Elder. This performance was in good hands, every flourish received its due and appropriate weight. Perhaps wisely the ballet was truncated leaving only the ‘Dance of the Gladiators”. One assumes that the forthcoming Opera Rara recording will be complete.
Success of operas during this period was largely dependent on star vocal qualities. This casting was very fine indeed. Michael Spyres, singing in excellent French, had exactly the right blend of heady tenor with a little bit of steel for the taxing role of the devout, committed Christian and visionary Polyuecte, whose refusal to compromise or renounce his Christian beliefs leads to his Martyrdom. His Act Three aria was a tour de force, especially the thrilling exhibitionist foray well above the stave at its conclusion, yet he always retained a sense of line and legato.
Joyce El-Khoury was almost his equal – producing lots of lovely creamy and limpid tone especially at lower dynamics, and displaying technical mastery. Only in the more dramatic passages, when riding an orchestral and choral swell, was a little more heft needed. She evinced well the heroine’s dilemmas of loyalty to her husband, despite not understanding his religious convictions, and her past love for Roman General Sévère. He was sung by David Kempster with solid warm tone and excellent diction. Old-school basses Brindley Sherratt and Clive Bayley made the most of the implacably vengeful old men with incisive and telling contributions to the big finale of the third Act. Wynne Evans made what he could with the limited possibilities of the role of Néarque. The Opera Rara Chorus made its varied populations vocally distinct.
So, a persuasive performance – lovers of Donizetti’s operas will certainly wish to collect the recording. A visionary director able to draw parallels with modern-day persecution might now be able to pull off a staging, or maybe leave it to our imagination.