Marvellous Martyrs

7 Nov

I know we have a very busy operatic life in London, but can there not be a bit more co-ordination between the organisations? Like not performing little known operas on the same day?  Apparently this is just too difficult. On 4th November, the Mariinsky were performing Schedrin’s The Left Hander at the Barbican and Opera Rara were performing Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall. Insofar as they thought about, they may have thought that the public for Schedrin and the public for Donizetti didn’t overlap much, so they were safe. Most opera addicts will tell you this is nonsense and I’ve no doubt that there were a number of us who were seriously angry and having to miss one or the other. I plumped to go to the Donizetti.  Judging by the reviews, I think I was right.

It’s a curious piece. Poliuto had been forbidden in Naples – and Scribe was asked to translate and add to it to turn it into something fit for the Paris Opera. It was a moderate success but, what is interesting is that, in the 19th Century, Poliuto was a much more successful work. I can’t wait to see it at Glyndebourne next year if only to see the contrast.  On the evidence of this evening, I can see why it might be the case that Donizetti’s original might be preferable.

It is set in Armenia in Roman times: Polyeucte has converted to christianity. This is a problem because he’s married to Pauline, the daughter of Roman governor, Félix. Before she married Polyeucte, she was deeply in love with Sévère, a fanatical anti-Christian who is meant to have died in battle. Of course he didn’t and he duly turns up to do his bit of ethnic cleansing and finds himself in a nice situation where his former beloved is begging him to save her present husband. The deals is that Polyeucte will be saved if he recants. Paulina tries to make him do so but the end result is that she sees the light herself and the two are duly delivered to the lions.

I missed the lions scene. I have written before about the “is it worth the last train” problem. Today it was not just the last train, but a bus and I’m not sure that a combination of Florez, Kaufmann, Baker and Callas would make me endure that. The Parisians obviously didn’t have this problem in 1840 but, even so, the music lasted three hours with only a small part of the ballet music and we only had one interval.  Did none of them have jobs to go to the next day?

That points to the problem. It’s quite a leisurely piece. It feels as though a domestic drama lasting a couple of hours has been stretched quite a bit. It feels slower, more stately than Donizetti’s Italian works, as if there’s some padding and I’m not convinced that there’s enough added to make it work for this length. La Favorite and even Dom Sebastian strike me as dealing more interestingly with the grand opera form and, in the former case, much more successfully.  There really are only two interesting characters – Polyeucte and Paulina – and this isn’t quite enough for this length of time.  It might well have been more satisfying with the full extravagance of a performance at the Paris Opéra where there would at least have been more interesting things to watch.

That said, there are some really fine things in it. Two superb arias for Paulina and Poleucte, a fine trio at the end of Act I, a really good finale to Act III. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the duet for Paulina and Poleucte in the penultimate scene was kitsch or moving, but it’s jolly enough. There’s a lot that looks forward to Aida, particularly for the ceremonial stuff. Plot wise, it struck me that this was something which was easily updatable – a political class trying to deal a faith it can’t control, It could be a much more interesting work without the grand opera paraphernalia.

This was an excellent performance of it.  Polyeuctes was originally written for Nourrit and actually performed by his success Duprez.  He has a series of fearsome, but grateful pieces of music to sing.  Michael Spyres was outstanding in the role – elegant, impassioned singing and a top note (D, E?) that had us gasping at the technique.   He looks as though he may be about to become the next great bel canto tenor.  Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline had a similarly showy aria herself and did it remarkably well.  She also conveyed the passion and dignity of the role.  She’s obviously another major talent to watch.  David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Wynne Evans and Clive Bayley didn’t have much to do, really, but did it pretty well.

Mark Elder’s conducting was fluent, beautifully judged and brought out the best of the piece.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played really well – the opening of the overture – a concerto for four bassoons – was really well done and the details of the instrumentation came through well. The singers were supported properly and the Opera Rara chorus was strong.

The more I see of Donizetti the more fascinated I am by the sheer range of his output and his ability to convey emotion and action musically.  This is him at the height of his powers and, even if he may not be that comfortable with the form, it makes a hugely enjoyable evening.  It would be fun if someone could throw money at it and stage it as it might have been staged.  In the meantime, I’ll be getting the CD.

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