22 Apr 2005

GOUNOD: Polyeucte

In spite of the fact that Gounod had a special fondness for Polyeucte, it was among the least successful of his many operas. In fact, he was reported to have considered it as the favorite of his works. It was first composed around the time of the Franco-Prussian war.

Because of the war, Gounod and his family moved to London, where he finished work on it. Gounod fell in love with a British soprano, Georgina Weldon, and promised to try to get her the lead role when the opera was eventually given in Paris. But the relationship turned sour, and Gounod abruptly moved back to France, leaving the score with the Weldons in London. They refused to return it, and Gounod wound up doing the job over again from memory. It was finally premiered in Paris at the Opéra on Oct. 7, 1878, where it was given a total of 29 times, before disappearing from the boards. The only other French city where it is known to have been performed is Nantes[1] (April 1881). But, it was never given in some of the other major French centers such as Lyons, Marseilles and Rouen. Outside France, it was produced in both Antwerp (April 1879) and Geneva (April 1882), but apparently not in Brussels nor Monte Carlo.

Polyeucte was the third significant opera loosely based on Corneille's Polyeucte. The first was Donizetti's Poliuto, originally intended for Naples in 1839, but banned by the censors. Donizetti revised it for Paris next year, renaming it Les martyrs, the première taking place on April 10, 1840. It was not overly successful in Paris, with a total of 52 performances over several seasons. However, Les martyrs was widely given in the French provinces, as well as French theatres in neighboring countries and New Orleans. It stayed in the repertory in the latter city until 1871. In the meantime, Poliuto was finally given in Naples in 1848, and soon entered the standard repertory, where it remained for over 50 years. Strangely, it was much more successful in Paris than the French version, and given at the Théâtre Italien in that city almost every season from 1859 to 1877. Some of the most important interpreters of the title role included Enrico Tamberlick and Francesco Tamagno. Gounod must have been aware of these facts, and probably had every reason to believe that an opera by him on the same subject would have an equivalent triumph. But that was not to be.

Steven Huebner, author of the definitive book on Gounod[2] attempts to explain the failure of Polyeucte, primarily using the most reliable sources at his disposal: contemporary reviews. They blame the lack of success largely on "the failure of the title character to excite the sympathies of opera audiences", and of his being "obsessed with his own destiny, at the expense of exhibiting more vibrant human attitudes[3]". He also cites these critics as questioning the love of Polyeucte for Pauline, and/or finding Pauline much too cold. Elsewhere Huebner comments on the negative reaction of the public to Gounod's religious beliefs: "The responsiveness of the chord that Polyeucte's mission struck within the devout Gounod is equal in volume to the unresponsiveness the theme found with the composer's contemporaries[4]".

Yet, these rationalizations do not appear to tell the whole story. The hero of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine also was concerned with his legacy, and seems to have been simultaneously in love with two women. Carmen is, perhaps, as unsympathetic a "heroine" as one can find in opera-in fact with the exception of Micaela, none of the characters are really likeable. And there are many other once successful operas without love interest or sympathetic characters. Yet, Carmen and L'Africaine were among the most popular operas composed in France between the premiere of Faust (1859) and that of Manon (1884). By the same token, the emphasis on religion of Donizetti's two operas on the subject did not detract from their popularity. In fact, Poliuto stayed in the repertory much longer than most of Donizetti's works, with perhaps three exceptions[5] .

I would postulate that the problems with Polyeucte were more complicated, and also included the fact that Pauline only has one relatively short, albeit beautiful, prayer with little opportunity for vocal display, although she does have four major duets, two each with her husband, Polyeucte, and her former lover, Sévère. By the same token, Polyeucte's only major aria occurs in Act V by which time both Sévère and a secondary character, Sextus, have had their solos. Another likely issue is that Polyeucte came at a time when the once great popularity of grand opera was on the wane. It was one of five major grand operas premiered at the Opera between 1875 and 1885, the others being Le Roi de Lahore (Massenet-1877), Le tribut de Zamora (Gounod, 1881) Henri VIII (Saint-Saens-1883) and Le Cid (Massenet-1885). The last, with 152 performances at the Opera and a major international career, was the most successful of these, but it also had the most sympathetic hero and heroine. But even the success of Le Cid was miniscule to those of earlier works by Meyerbeer, Halévy and Thomas[6]. All of these operas consisted largely of set numbers, something that Wagner and his followers thoroughly disliked. Polyeucte even has a cabaletta (a form that had virtually disappeared by 1878). But whether an opera composed 130 years ago was ahead of its time or not does not matter to this reviewer, and should not matter to modern audiences. There really is one valid criterion: Is the music beautiful? The answer to that question is a resounding "Yes!!!!".

Only one number in Polyeucte has become well known: the tenor's famous aria in the prison: "Source delicieuse" in Act IV, thanks largely to single recordings by the likes of Leon Escalais, Jose Luccioni, Jose Carreras, Roberto Alagna and others. But there is much else of great beauty in the work, starting perhaps with the first big duet for Polyeucte and Pauline in Act I. Later in the act, the march announcing Sévère's entrance is striking, as is the ensuing ensemble. The second act starts out with a fine aria for Sévère, and an effective duet between him and Pauline. There also is a fine barcarolle for Sextus. The third act has a pagan ballet followed by the most Meyerbeerian scene in the work where Polyeucte, with the help of Néarque, smashes the statues. The latter is stupendous. The last act has Polyeucte's fine prison aria, another duet for him and his wife, and the final "credo".

It has been my experience over the years that when long forgotten works are revived for the first time, the singers are often disappointing. This is because established stars may be reluctant to learn a new work that they may only sing that one time. This has not been the case recently at such adventurous centers as Martina Franca, Jesi, Compiègne, and Wexford, and is definitely not the case here. The tenor, Giorgio Casciarri, who sings the role of Polyeucte is a revelation. He has a large voice of great vocal beauty, with lots of "squillo", and a fine top. I hope that this recording will help launch a brilliant career, and that the stardom he so richly deserves will not deter him from continuing to take an interest in unusual 19th century repertory. He is a tough act to follow, but soprano Nadia Vezzu, baritones Luca Grassi and Vincenzo Taormina and the three basses all provide him with excellent support. It is interesting to note that, although he is a relative newcomer, Luca Grassi already is well on the way to establishing himself as a singer with an unusual repertory. In addition to Polyeucte, he has sung Mayr's Ginevra di Scozia in Trieste and Gounod's Reine de Saba in Martina Franca.

The presentation is reasonably good, although I am a little surprised that only an English translation is provided for an opera recorded in Italy by an Italian firm. It is also unnecessary and somewhat irritating to try to translate the names of the characters, calling Pauline Paulina, Polyeucte Polyeuctus, etc. Finally, the liner notes could have been more informative.

As a total package, this recording can be recommended in the highest terms

Tom Kaufman (c) 2005

fn1. The documentation of many French opera houses such as Bordeaux is inadequate to determine with certainty whether or not other French cities heard it.

fn2. Huebner, Steven: The Operas of Gounod

fn3. Ibid. pages 215 to 216

fn4. Huebner, Steven: After 1850 at the Paris Opera: institution and repertory in The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, page 306.

fn5. Lucia di Lammermoor, Favorita, Lucrezia Borgia, possibly also Maria di Rohan.

fn6. These ranged from 384 for Hamlet to 1120 for Les Huguenots.