Teatro Nuovo at Lincoln Center – Donizetti’s Poliuto

Poliuto – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on Pierre Corneille’s play Polyeucte [sung in Italian with English supertitles].

Poliuto – Santiago Ballerini
Paolina – Chelsea Lehnea
Severo – Ricardo José Rivera
Callistene – Hans Tashjian
Felice – Krishna Raman
Nearco – Robert Kleinertz
A Christian – James Danner
Another Christian – Louise Floyd

Teatro Nuovo Chorus & Orchestra
Jakob Lehmann

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 19 July, 2023
Venue: Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City

Teatro Nuovo opens its 2023 season with Gaetano Donizetti’s rarely heard Poliuto. First staged in New York in 1859 at the Academy of Music, then the city’s premier opera venue, none of its other leading houses has mounted the work since. Even concert performances are rare. The most recent was in 1998 at Carnegie Hall, by the Opera Orchestra of New York and Eve Queler.

One of the last of Donizetti’s nearly seventy operas, the bel canto thriller is set in Roman-occupied Armenia in 257 AD and involves a romantic triangle with a religious twist. Paolina, daughter of an Armenian governor, believing that her beloved Severo, the Roman consul, has died in battle, has married the nobleman Poliuto. But Severo has survived and when he returns, rage and recriminations result. Secretly, Poliuto has converted to Christianity, and Paolina, moved by his faith, announces her conversion to his outlawed religion and chooses to die with him.

Although written for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, the opera was banned before it opened when the city’s censors refused to allow the stage depiction of a Christian saint as a jealous lover. No such scruples existed in Paris where, greatly expanded and retitled as Les Martyrs, the work was staged in 1840. While neither version has gained a place in the active repertory, both have their admirers. Twentieth-century productions of Poliuto included ones at La Scala, most notably in 1960 with Franco Corelli in the title role and Maria Callas as Paolina. In Britain Opera Rara gave a concert performance of Les Martyrs in 2014, and Glyndebourne presented Poliuto in 2015.

Teatro Nuovo’s no-frills production is semi-staged. There are no sets, no props, no period costumes. The players act against projections of edited reproductions of designs for the 1840 Les Martyrs, all highly effective at setting the scene and keeping the focus on the music.

Leading, Jakob Lehmann elicits an elegant and informed performance. The 48-member orchestra, seated at audience level and according to the layout used in 1816 at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, performs Donizetti’s complete 1838 score with the single addition of the overture composed for Paris, as was done at the Italian premiere. Lehmann keeps the action moving with brisk and lively tempos, and the period instruments deliver Donizetti’s forward-looking music with rhythmic bite and clarity.

The score places great demands on the soloists, and the three leading roles are filled by very talented young singers. As the headstrong Poliuto, Santiago Ballerini is somewhat wooden at first but soon relaxes, revealing a clear and ardent tenor and unleashing thrilling high notes in Act Two when he vows to avenge the perceived stain on honor. He is at his finest in the final Act when, condemned to die in the arena and dreaming of his beloved Paolina, he delivers some stunning pianissimo passages. 

As the bewildered Paolina, Chelsea Lehnea is in excellent voice. Her warm but powerful soprano effortlessly negotiates the tortuous coloratura of her opening scenes, most notably in ‘Di quai soave lagrime’, where she is moved to tears on hearing the Christians pray for their enemies. With her superb theatrical skills, she convincingly depicts her complex character’s many mood changes and uncommonly swift progression from docile to fearless.

Ricardo José Rivera is vibrant and commanding as the Roman proconsul Severo. With his powerful and richly toned baritone, he delivers some of the finest singing, dominating the ensemble at highly dramatic moments, but capable of spinning out legato lines in his Act One ‘Di tua beltade imagine’ where he eagerly anticipates his reunion with Paolina.

Robert Kleinertz brings a strong stage presence and a vibrant tenor to the role of Nearco, the leader of the Armenian Christians, and Hans Tashjian is deliciously evil as Callistene, the High Priest of Jupiter, offering skulking menace and the best of his silky smooth bass.

The 21-member Chorus make important contributions to the drama. Gently reverent as a group of Christian converts in the opening of Act One, they induce great dramatic frisson as frenzied worshippers of Jove in the extended choral scene of Act Two.

This simple but superbly realized production makes a powerful case for one of Donizetti’s most melodious, harmonically inventive, and dramatically satisfying operas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content