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Recordings

Donizetti: <em>Les Martyrs</em> (Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs])
30 May 2015

Donizetti: Les Martyrs

As the editor of Opera magazine, John Allison, notes in his editorial in the June issue, Donizetti fans are currently spoilt for choice, enjoying a ‘Donizetti revival’ with productions of several of the composer’s lesser known works cropping up in houses around the world.

Donizetti: Les Martyrs

A review by Claire Seymour

Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs]

$65.99  Click to buy

Here in the UK, in recent years Opera Rara have introduced us to Belisario in the concert hall, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and subsequently released on CD along with Caterina Cornaro (conducted by David Parry). Even the touring companies have got in on the act, with English Touring Opera programming L’assedio di Calais and Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo this spring ( ETO spring tour 2015). The breadth of Donizetti’s achievement is now being recognised, matching the success which the composer realised in his day — when, mordantly, Berlioz would complain that ‘One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti’.

When Donizetti’s first grand opera, Les Martyrs, premiered at the Paris Opéra in April 1840 it was one of three works by Donizetti then entertaining the French capital, with La Fille du regiment playing at the Opéra-Comique and Lucia di Lammermoor keeping the seria fans happy at the Théâtre de la Renaissance. Les Martyrs was a re-working of Il Poliuto, after the latter had been rejected by the censors at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples. Spotting an opportunity to make use of his labours to fulfil a commission at the Opéra, the composer asked Eugène Scribe to expand and re-order Salvatore Cammarano’s three-act Italian libretto into a French grand opera of four acts with requisite spectacle, processional choruses and extravagant ballet.

The opera’s religious subject matter proved more of a hit with the Parisians than it had done with the blue-pencil wielding Neapolitans. The action takes place in the third century, in Mélitène, the capital of Armenia which is under Roman rule. The conflicts are both public and private. The violent tension between the two opposing factions — the fervent Christians on the one hand, and their persecutors, the tyrannical Romans on the other — is embodied more intimately by the protagonists, Polyeucte, a Roman convert to Christianity, shortly to be baptised, and his wife, Pauline, daughter of the Armenian governer, Félix, who secretly longs for her former beloved, Sévère, a Roman general feared to have perished on the battleground. Both suffer inner schisms: Polyeucte is torn between his love for his wife Pauline and that, which proves stronger, for his new God, while Pauline’s obedience to her father is tested by her loyalty to her husband and her lingering feelings for Sévère.

Even the latter faces his own dark night of the soul when, later, he has to choose between his duty to the Emperor and his love for Pauline. When he duly re-appears after his near-death — his bravery and survival celebrated by triumphal choruses and a gladiatorial display — Sévère is crowned proconsul by the Emperor for his heroic feats, and offered Armenia as a dowry for whomever he chooses as his wife. Distraught to find Pauline has married Polyeucte while he himself has been steadfastly serving the Empire, Sévère attends sacrifices in his honour at the Temple, during which Polyeucte declares his Christian faith (in order to save his fellow convert Néarque). Sévère now finds himself ordered to carry out the execution of his beloved’s new husband. Pauline, wracked by multiple allegiances, urges Polyeucte to renounce his God and acknowledge the Roman deities, but at the eleventh hour she experiences her own Damascene conversion. Despite the desperate please of Sévère and Félix, the Christian couple accept their martyrdom and the curtain falls to the entry of the lions.

Temples and palaces, vast amphitheatres, gladiatorial combat, Greek and Roman dance, with a pride of hungry lions thrown in at the close: it’s not surprising that it went down well with the Parisian grand opera crowd. The critical press was more mixed, however, and the production not quite as successful as Donizetti might have hoped. It received 18 performances but when it was revived in 1843 it closed after only two nights. In the ensuing years it resurfaced in an Italian translation, as I martiri, and then largely faded from view. Ironically, the more concise Il Poliuto, given its Naples premiere in November 1848 fared better and stayed in repertory throughout the nineteenth century.

Now we have an opportunity to compare both works, for in the same month that Glyndebourne Festival Opera have opened their 2015 season with the Italian ‘version’ of the work, Il Poliuto (Glyndebourne review), Opera Rara have issued a CD recording of Les Martyrs, having performed the opera in a concert version with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Mark Elder, at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2014 ( Opera Rara review). This recording presents the new critical edition prepared for that performance by Dr Flora Wilson of King’s College Cambridge and, as the CD booklet tells us, restores, ‘various cuts made to the score of Les Martyrs before the first performances in Paris … [allowing] us to hear several passages of music never before played in public, and to appreciate the opera in a version much close to Donizetti’s original intentions’. In the Festival Hall last November these ‘reinstatements’ included both short passages of extra recitative and arioso, as well as longer passages — for example, in the end-of-Act 1 trio with chorus and in Sévère’s Act 3 cabaletta. The ballets, which were not all heard in the concert performance, are here played in their entirety.

So, is Les Martyrs as lost master-piece? Not exactly, but in this committed, serious performance it has its thrilling moments. Sir Mark Elder’s pacing is decisive but flexible, and he gives characteristically meticulous attention to all details of orchestration and harmony. And, it’s a large orchestra: almost 50 string players are supplemented by double woodwind (stretching to a quartet of bassoons, 4 players of each brass instrument plus an off-stage complement, percussion, 2 harps — and, ophicleide.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by Matthew Truscott, play with enormous energy and verve. The reedy tones — valve-less horns and bassoons — at the opening of the overture establish a suitable air of righteous nobility, before warm bass pizzicatos and timpani repetitions inject forward movement, and before we know it the violins are scurrying and dancing with perfect synchronicity and crystal-clear incisiveness. The acceleration is seamless, as woodwind and brass interjections evolve into more assertive declamations; a spiralling bass descent takes us back to more restrained solemnity. Elder’s ability to move from intimacy to spaciousness is impressive throughout.

The recorded sound is bright and very ‘present’, perhaps a little too much so … but, it enables us to enjoy much superb instrumental playing. A wonderfully phrased clarinet solo introduces Pauline’s confessions before her mother’s tomb in Act 1, while her Act 3 meditations as she sits dreamily in her chamber are prefaced by beautifully intoned horn passages which give way to a silky flute solo, which is itself superseded by a snaky clarinet motif — a perfect musical representation of her avowals, fears and passions. The punchy precision and glossiness of the brass in the ‘Lutte des Gladiateurs’, complemented by vivacious timpani playing and taut string passagework, is stunning, and the subsequent dances, ‘Pas de deux’ and ‘Danse Militaire’, whip up a storm. There is effortless conversation between the various instrumental groups, as in the introductory bars of Polyeucte’s Act 3 aria, in which he foresees Pauline’s religious conversion: a legato prayer from the oboe, accompanied by low clarinets and punctured by a timpani bass, is transferred to the horns by way of a sinuous violin phrase.

The chorus (46 singers) are thunderously bombastic when volume and ebullience are required, as in the choral-finale to Act 3, or in Act 4 when the blood-thirsty crowd salivate over the of the sacrificial Christians who will be ripped limb from limb by the raging lions; but elsewhere they adopt a suitably restrained resonance, as in the balanced and well-blended Act 1 off-stage Chorus of Christians who witness Polyeucte’s baptism.

Michael Spyres is superb as Polyeucte, exhibiting infinite stamina, an incredibly strong chest register and an amazing top — demonstrated par excellence in the Act 3 ‘Oui, j'irai dans leurs temples!’, where his final top E pings electrifyingly before settling with consummate control down an octave; here Spyres’ elasticity and suave sound impeccably, and terrifyingly, capture the mesmerising self-belief of the zealous martyr-to-be. But, the tenor shows his awareness of the full range of bel canto gestures — not merely its show-stopping audacity — and there is subtlety and a perfectly spun pianissimo in the preceding ‘Mon seul trésor, mon bien supreme’.

The role of Pauline was one which was greatly expanded by Scribe, and Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury matches Spyres for passion and power, if not always for clarity and control. There is a beguiling joyful élan, though — not to mention impressive coloratura agility — to her expression of delight that ‘Sévère existe!’ in Act 2. And, El-Khoury’s Act III duet with David Kempster’s Sévère ‘Ne vois-tu pas qu’hélas! mon cœur succombe et cède à sa douleur?’ is something to savour. But, elsewhere I find Kempster’s rather wide vibrato sometimes disrupts the prevailing precision of Elder’s direction, although he copes well with the demands of the role — perhaps the most interesting dramatically — which repeatedly pushes the baritone voice high. Moreover, Kempster makes a terrific contribution to the Act 2 finale (not least because his French diction is excellent).

Brindley Sherratt roars impressively as Félix — his Act 2 aria, ‘Dieux des Romains’ has the portentous authority of a Sarastro — and he is matched for imperiousness by Clive Bailey’s Callisthènes, the priest of Jupiter who brings news of Sévère’s survival and promotion. The role of Néarque is very much that of ‘second tenor’, but Wynne Evans makes a strong contribution.

The recording is accompanied by a handsome book containing a synopsis, the libretto text in French and English, and informative articles by Flora Wilson and Jonathan Keates which establish the contemporary musical and political contexts and trace the genesis of the Les Martyrs and its relationship to Il Poliuto, lightened by plenty of anecdotes concerning the rivalries and ripostes of the day, as well as illustrations of Donizetti’s contemporaries and colour photographs of the modern-day cast and the OAE in rehearsal.

So, will Les Martyrs become an opera house staple in future? Probably not: the practical obstacles — length, scale and forces required — not to mention the general lack of character development might deter many an artistic director. And, while we’re quite used suspending disbelief in the opera house, modern audiences might find Pauline’s eleventh-hour transfiguration to be just one step too far beyond the bounds of credibility (and Donizetti doesn’t help, giving Pauline a waltz-like number which sounds far too ditzy). Then, what to do about the lions?

Elder gives us an exhilarating sound and sweeps us up in the melodramatic pell-mell. But, perhaps the more compact Il Poliuto will win the day?

Claire Seymour


Cast and other performers:

Polyeucte: Michael Spyres; Pauline: Joyce El-Khoury; Sévère: David Kempster; Félix: Brindley Sherratt; Callisthènes: Clive Bayley; Néarque: Wynne Evans. Conductor: Sir Mark Elder. Opera Rara Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs].

Click here for direct purchase from Opera Rara.

  

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