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

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

'So sweet is the pain': Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

In this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, soprano Roberta Invernizzi presented Italian songs from the first half of seventeenth-century, exploring love and loyalty, loss and lies, and demonstrating consummate declamatory mastery.

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

Royal Academy's Semele offers 'endless pleasures'

Self-adoring ‘celebrities’ beware. That smart-phone which feeds your narcissism might just prove your nemesis.

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):