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 Recordings

Henry Purcell, Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Vol. III: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers

The Sixteen continues its exploration of Henry Purcell’s Welcome Songs for Charles II. As with Robert King’s pioneering Purcell series begun over thirty years ago for Hyperion, Harry Christophers is recording two Welcome Songs per disc.

Anima Rara: Ermonela Jaho

In February this year, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho made a highly lauded debut recital at Wigmore Hall - a concert which both celebrated Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary and honoured the career of the Italian soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), the star of verismo who created the title roles in Leoncavallo’s La bohème and Zazà, Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Requiem pour les temps futurs: An AI requiem for a post-modern society

Collapsology. Or, perhaps we should use the French word ‘Collapsologie’ because this is a transdisciplinary idea pretty much advocated by a series of French theorists - and apparently, mostly French theorists. It in essence focuses on the imminent collapse of modern society and all its layers - a series of escalating crises on a global scale: environmental, economic, geopolitical, governmental; the list is extensive.

Ádám Fischer’s 1991 MahlerFest Kassel ‘Resurrection’ issued for the first time

Amongst an avalanche of new Mahler recordings appearing at the moment (Das Lied von der Erde seems to be the most favoured, with three) this 1991 Mahler Second from the 2nd Kassel MahlerFest is one of the more interesting releases.

Max Lorenz: Tristan und Isolde, Hamburg 1949

If there is one myth, it seems believed by some people today, that probably needs shattering it is that post-war recordings or performances of Wagner operas were always of exceptional quality. This 1949 Hamburg Tristan und Isolde is one of those recordings - though quite who is to blame for its many problems takes quite some unearthing.

Women's Voices: a sung celebration of six eloquent and confident voices

The voices of six women composers are celebrated by baritone Jeremy Huw Williams and soprano Yunah Lee on this characteristically ambitious and valuable release by Lontano Records Ltd (Lorelt).

Rosa mystica: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir

As Paul Spicer, conductor of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, observes, the worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary is as ‘old as Christianity itself’, and programmes devoted to settings of texts which venerate the Virgin Mary are commonplace.

The Prison: Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth’s last large-scale work, written in 1930 by the then 72-year-old composer who was increasingly afflicted and depressed by her worsening deafness, was The Prison – a ‘symphony’ for soprano and bass-baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty: Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn

‘Hamilton Harty is Irish to the core, but he is not a musical nationalist.’

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

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.

  

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):