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Pierre Corneille (1606 - 1684) by Jean-Jacques Caffiere (Musée du Louvre)
21 May 2006


Poliuto, Tragedia lirica in three acts.

Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after the tragedy Polyeucte (1640) by Pierre Corneille.

Gaetano Donizetti: Poliuto

Maria Callas (Paolina), Franco Corelli (Poliuto), Ettore Bastianini (Severo), Nicola Zaccaria (Callistene), Rinaldo Pelizzoni (Felice), Piero De Palma (Nearco), Orchestra e Coro Della Scala di Milano, Antonio Votto (cond.).
Live performance, 7 December 1960, Milan.


First Performance: 30 November 1848, Teatro San Carlo, Naples.

Principal Characters:

Poliuto Tenor
Paolina, his wife and daughter of Felice Soprano
Severo, proconsul Baritone
Callistene, high priest of Jove Bass
Nearco, head of the Armenian Christians Tenor
Felice, governor of Mitilene Tenor

Time and Place: Mitilene, capital of Armenia, circa 257.


Act I

Poliuto has converted to the Christian faith, which is a forbidden cult. During the night, Poliuto goes to join his brothers in faith at a secret cavern. He is met by Nearco, to whom he alludes to his jealousy toward Paolina. Poliuto enters the cavern where he receives the sacrament of baptism. Unbeknownst to Poliuto, Paolina has followed him to the cavern. Nearco confirms her fears that Poliuto has converted. He exhorts Paolina not to disclose his secret. Felice, the governor and father of Paolina, has decreed that those who embrace the Christian religion shall suffer death. But, Paolina is also anxious because her former lover, Severo, is arriving as the Roman proconsul. She had believed Severo had died in battle and thus married Poliuto. The act concludes with Severo's entrance and his learning of Paolina's marriage.

Act II

At the home of Felice, Callistene, the high priest of Jove and rejected lover of Paolina, has arranged a meeting between Paolina and Severo. He has also arranged to bring Poliuto who sees them together just as Severo declares his love for Paolina. His honor stained, Poliuto vows revenge but then learns that Nearco has been arrested. He immediately go to the temple where Nearco is questioned by Callistene and Severo. He is asked to identify the person baptized the night before. Nearco refuses to answer. Poliuto, however, comes forward to confess. Paolina intervenes, begging Felice, Callistene and Severo to save her husband. In a fit of pride, Poliuto curses Jove as a false god and rejects his wife. Poliuto and Nearco are dragged away.


In the sacred wood near the temple of Jove, Callistene is irate. He announces to the other priests that the Christians have decided to follow Poliuto's example and to seek martyrdom. Confined in a cell, Poliuto dreams of Paolina transfigured by a strange light. He awakes and finds his wife before him. She implores him to save himself and to reject the Christian faith. He refuses. Suspecting Callistene's treachery, he tells Paolina of Callistene's behavior. Paolina clarifies the situation. Poliuto explains that his first obligation is to save his soul. Paolina decides to embrace Christianity and asks to die with her husband. Poliuto and Paolina are then sent to their execution.

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the text of Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille.

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