Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Desert Island Delights at the RCM: Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe

Britannia waives the rules: The EU Brexit in quotes’. Such was the headline of a BBC News feature on 28th June 2016. And, nearly three years later, those who watch the runaway Brexit-train hurtle ever nearer to the edge of Dover’s white cliffs might be tempted by the thought of leaving this sceptred (sceptic?) isle, for a life overseas.

Akira Nishimura’s Asters: A Major New Japanese Opera

Opened as recently as 1997, the Opera House of the New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT) is one of the newest such venues among the world’s great capitals, but, with ten productions of opera a year, ranging from baroque to contemporary, this publicly-owned and run theatre seems determined to make an international impact.

The Outcast in Hamburg

It is a “a musicstallation-theater with video” that had its world premiere at the Mannheim Opera in 2012, revived just now in a new version by Vienna’s ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wein for one performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus and one performance in Hamburg’s magnificent Elbphilharmonie (above). Olga Neuwirth’s The Outcast and this rich city are imperfect bedfellows!

Monarchs corrupted and tormented: ETO’s Idomeneo and Macbeth at the Hackney Empire

Promises made to placate a foe in the face of imminent crisis are not always the most well-considered and have a way of coming back to bite one - as our current Prime Minister is finding to her cost.

Der Fliegende Holländer and
Tannhäuser in Dresden

To remind you that Wagner’s Dutchman had its premiere in Dresden’s Altes Hoftheater in 1843 and his Tannhauser premiered in this same theater in 1845 (not to forget that Rienzi premiered in this Saxon court theater in 1842).

WNO's The Magic Flute at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A perfect blue sky dotted with perfect white clouds. Identikit men in bowler hats clutching orange umbrellas. Floating cyclists. Ferocious crustaceans.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria: Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra

This was an oddly fascinating concert - though, I’m afraid, for quite the wrong reasons (though this depends on your point of view). As a vehicle for the sound, and playing, of the London Symphony Orchestra it was a notable triumph - they were not so much luxurious - rather a hedonistic and decadent delight; but as a study into three composers, who wrote so convincingly for opera, and taken somewhat out of their comfort zone, it was not a resounding success.

WNO's Un ballo in maschera at Birmingham's Hippodrome

David Pountney and his design team - Raimund Bauer (sets), Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes), Fabrice Kebour (lighting) - have clearly ‘had a ball’ in mounting this Un ballo in maschera, the second part of WNO’s Verdi trilogy and which forms part of a spring season focusing on what Pountney describes as the “profound and mysterious issue of Monarchy”.

Super #Superflute in North Hollywood

Pacific Opera Project’s rollicking new take on The Magic Flute is as much endearing fun as a box full of puppies.

Leading Ladies: Barbara Strozzi and Amiche

I couldn’t help wondering; would a chamber concert of vocal music by female composers of the 17th century be able sustain our concentration for 90 minutes? Wouldn’t most of us be feeling more dutiful than exhilarated by the end?

George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill at Wigmore Hall

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Rossini's Elizabeth I: English Touring Opera start their 2019 spring tour

What was it with Italian bel canto and the Elizabethan age? The era’s beautiful, doomed queens and swash-buckling courtiers seem to have held a strange fascination for nineteenth-century Italians.

Chameleonic new opera featuring Caruso in Amsterdam

Micha Hamel’s new opera, Caruso a Cuba, is constantly on the move. The chameleonic score takes on a myriad flavours, all with a strong sense of mood or place.

Ernst Krenek: Karl V, Bayerisches Staatsoper

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V op 73 at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, with Bo Skovhus, conducted by Erik Nielsen, in a performance that reveals the genius of Krenek’s masterpiece. Contemporary with Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, Krenek’s Karl V is a metaphysical drama, exploring psychological territory with the possibilities opened by new musical form.

A Sparkling Merry Widow at ENO

A small, formerly great, kingdom, is on the verge of bankruptcy and desperate to prevent its ‘assets’ from slipping into foreign hands. Sexual and political intrigues are bluntly exposed. The princes and patriarchs are under threat from both the ‘paupers’ and the ‘princesses’, and the two dangers merge in the glamorous figure of the irresistibly wealthy Pontevedrin beauty, Hanna Glawari, a working-class girl who’s married up and made good.

Mozart: Così fan tutte - Royal Opera House

Così fan tutte is, primarily, an ensemble opera and it sinks or swims on the strength of its sextet of singers - and this performance very much swam. In a sense, this is just as well because Jan Phillip Gloger’s staging (revived here by Julia Burbach) is in turns messy, chaotic and often confusing. The tragedy of this Così is that it’s high art clashing with Broadway; a theatre within an opera and a deceit wrapped in a conundrum.

Gavin Higgins' The Monstrous Child: an ROH world premiere

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre - not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name - is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’.

Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the first moments of the recent revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Elektra by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera of Chicago the audience is caught in the grip of a rich music-drama, the intensity of which is not resolved, appropriately, until the final, symmetrical chords.

Expressive Monteverdi from Les Talens Lyriques at Wigmore Hall

This was an engaging concert of madrigals and dramatic pieces from (largely) Claudio Monteverdi’s Venetian years, a time during which his quest to find the ‘natural way of imitation’ - musical embodiment of textual form, meaning and affect - took the form not primarily of solo declamation but of varied vocal ensembles of two or more voices with rich instrumental accompaniments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]
05 Nov 2014

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

Opera Rara brought a rare performance of Donizetti’s first opera for the Paris Opera to the Royal Festival Hall on 4 November 2014, following recording sessions for the opera.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]

 

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Opera Rara Chorus and soloists Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley and Wynne Evans.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1840. The work was created in double-quick time and was based on his Italian opera Poliuto, which had been cancelled just before the premiere in Naples owing to the plot’s element of religious martyrdom. Such subjects were, however, standard territory for the Paris Opera and Donizetti was able to re-cast the work as a four-act French Grand Opera with ballet to a new libretto by Eugene Scribe.Though Donizetti kept much of the original music it was re-cast into the sort of forms expected by the rather prescriptive Paris Opera. The result is an opera which fascinatingly moves between French and Italian forms so that, for example, Sévère has a very Italian caballetta embedded in the very French grand choral finale to Act two.

It is a long work, Sir Mark Elder and his forces gave us well over three hours of music even without performing the ballet. And it is written on a large scale, for large forces. The orchestra fielded a complement of around 50 strings, double woodwind plus piccolo and four bassoons (which Donizetti used to lovely effect in the overture), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones and an off-stage banda for four trumpets and three trombones. The French kept valveless horns for far longer than anyone else, so the horns were all hand stopped and each had a bewildering array of crooks, and the trumpeters similarly had two or three different instruments.

Set in Roman Armenia, the opera opens with the baptism into Christianity of the general Polyeucte (Michael Spyres). But Christians are proscribed, and Polyeucte is married to Pauline (Joyce El-Khoury) who is daughter of the governor Félix (Brindley Sherratt). Félix is introducing new laws threatening execution on anyone who gets baptised. The resulting struggle between pagan and Christian, public duty and private belief, is exacerbated by the fact the the new proconsul come to prosecute the new anti-Christian laws is Sévère (David Kempster) whom Pauline once loved (and still does) but thought was dead on the battle field.

The plot provides plenty of the ceremonial opportunities necessary in French Grand Opera, processions in the dark in catacombs, a Roman triumph, pagan ceremonies and the final throwing of the Christians to the lions in the arena. Donizetti doesn’t try to re-invent or re-structure the tradition as Verdi would do, and the work is not the masterpiece that Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is, but the music here is rich and rewarding. And the very Italian cast to the melodic material makes for an additional frisson.

One of the key scenes, however, would be a problem for modern producers I think. Pauline visits Polyeucte in prison and after he prays, she receives a vision and converts miraculously to Christianity. Donizetti’s response is to write some lovely music, unfortunately Pauline responds musically with an elaborate waltz which sounds completely out of key emotionally (though El-Khoury sang it beautifully). But the more personal scenes are very strong, particularly the third act with its confrontations between Pauline and Sévère, Pauline and Polyeucte, the questioning of Polyeucte’s Christian friend Néarque (Wynne Evans) and finally Polyeucte;s revelation of his Christianity and triumphant cabaletta which concludes the act. This was Donizetti at his best.

The role of Polyeucte was written for Gilbert Duprez, one of the singers that effectively invented the modern tenor voice; taking the chest voice up to top C and banishing the elaborate falsetto coloratura that was common until then. Whilst heroic for its time, Polyeucte requires a singer who can combine heroics with stamina, sustaining the high tessitura of the role but still able to sing with finesse and flexibility. The American tenor Michael Spyres has sung quite a number of the tenor roles in the early 19th century French Grand Opera repertoire (we saw him in Auber’s La muette de Portici in Paris in 2012) and his performance as Polyeucte was nothing less than heroic. He sang with untiring burnished tone, giving us fine nobility of phrasing and some finely flexible decorative passages. Dramatically he brought strong commitment to the role, making it believable and certainly a lot more than just a string of arias and ensembles.

The role of Pauline varied between dramatic declamation and ravishingly elaborated coloratura; it seemed as if Pauline’s response to stress was to break out in roulades. El-Khoury not only sang these beautifully, but used her lovely smoky voice to give dramatic weight to Pauline’s more vehement moments. You could imagine the role being sung with more weight and bite, but the original Pauline was Julie Dorus-Gras who created Berlioz’s Teresa and Eudoxie in Halevy’s La Juive - both roles with roulades galore. Like Spyres, El-Khoury brought dramatic commitment as well as technical poise to create a highly sympathetic and ravishing performance.

David Kempster was brilliant as Sévère, deprived of his lover Pauline yet required to find clemency for her husband. Kempster let fly brilliantly in the cavatina and caballetta the are part of the act two finale, and elsewhere brought finesse and sympathy to the role. Brindley Sherratt thundered magnificently as the governor Félix, but this was not a one-sided performance and Sherratt showed the character’s sympathetic side in his interchanges with his daughter. On the other hand, all Clive Bayley’s character of Callisthènes was required to do was thunder and he did so magnificently too. Wynne Evans was Néarque, Polyeucte’s Christian friend. This is the second tenor role, required to hang around and sing duets with the tenor and generally start things off before the lead tenor gets the fireworks. Evans sang with some style and showed a real feeling of commitment as the Christian withstood the threats of torture.

The Paris Opera required operas to make good use of the chorus and there were plenty of opportunities here for the excellent Opera Rara Chorus, which was made up of both Christians and pagans. They sang with energy and verve, giving us some lovely detailed singing. Chorus members Rosalind Waters, Andrew Friendhoff and Simon Preece all provide strong support in small solo moments.

With a long, unfamiliar score the whole performance could have felt horribly flat but Mark Elder drew a stunning performance out of the orchestra, full of life and energy. They gave some really thrilling vital playing, with copious details articulated brilliantly so that the whole had real vitality. There were also some fine solo moments from individual players.

Les Martyrs is not a forgotten masterpiece, but it is by no means a write-off. The mature Donizetti’s first response to the challenge of writing French Grand Opera, it is a fascinating transitional work. Written on such a lavish scale, opportunities of seeing it even in concert are rare so Opera Rara are to be congratulated on being able to not only perform it but to do a studio recording as well. Mark Elder and his forces did the work proud and gave a thrillingly engrossing performance.

The performance was recorded for release on Opera Rara’s own CD label, available soon. For more details, visit the Opera Rara website. it will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15th November at 6.15pm GMT.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):