I’m not, in the normal run of things, a huge fan of obscure bel canto operas. A very long list of them languish in obscurity for very good reasons. So, my hopes were not all that high when I stuck the 2015 Glyndebourne recording of Donizetti’s Poliuto in the player. I was wrong. This is probably the best martyrdom opera from Glyndebourne since Peter Sellars’ production of Theodora in 1998.
Poliuto has a bit of a chequered history. It was written for Naples for the 1838 season but fell foul of the censorship and it would be 1848, a revolution and Donizetti’s death later before the piece was performed there as originally conceived. In the meantime Donizetti had taken it to Paris and turned it into a much longer grand opera in the French style; Les Martyrs. That got translated into Italian as I martiri and various cobblings together were performed for the rest of the 19th century after which it largely disappeared.
It’s a shame because it’s quite a tightly plotted piece with some excellent music. It’s based on Corneille’s Polyeucte and it’s basically a love triangle set against a 3rd century C.E. attempt by the Romans to repress Christianity in Armenia. Poliuto is an Armenian nobleman who has converted to Christianity. His wife, Paolina, was previously engaged to the Roman general Severo who is thought to have been killed in battle. However he turns up, minus an arm, as the Roman governor of Armenia with instructions to crush the Christians. The high priest Callistene stirs up the populace to demand the death of the Christians. Severo tries to get Paolina to give up Poliuto but instead she converts to Christianity and dies with him.
Director Mariame Clément and her designer Julia Hansen choose to set the piece in some modern authoritarian state where the “Christianity” of the original could be any form of dissent. Indeed baptism is transmuted to getting one’s head shaved which has the marked advantage of making it obvious who is a “Christian”. They also created a set of massive moving walls with projections on them which do very well as interiors or exteriors and mean the action doesn’t get held up by scene changes. The story is clearly told and easy to follow; always nice in an unfamiliar piece.
There’s some glorious music. All three principals get strong arias and there are choruses and ensembles that are by turns rousing and touching. The final ecstatic duet between Paolina and Poliuto is fabulous. There are also some interesting music for the orchestra with some deft handling of the woodwinds and rather less routine “rumpty tum” than in some other bel canto operas.
It probably wouldn’t work nearly as well with a less good cast but this one is fabulous. Poliuto is sung by Michael Fabiano, very much a favourite of mine in this rep. The seemingly effortless ringing high notes are there in abundance and he’s engaging emotionally too. Ana Maria Martinez is equally good as Paolina with even tone, accuracy and very classy coloratura. The principal trio is nicely rounded off by a very polished performance by Igor Golovatenko as Severo. The other roles are all more than adequate with a special nod to Matthew Rose as a sepulchral and suitably unpleasant Callistene. The conducting, by Enrique Mazzola is idiomatic and he gets great playing from the London Philharmonic. The Glyndebourne chorus is as committed and skilled as ever.
Video director François Roussillon does a better than decent job of capturing the flavour of the production. The video quality is not at all bad on DVD but is taxed in some darker scenes so one would probably prefer the available Blu-ray. The DTS soundtrack though is very clear and detailed. There are extras on the disk of which the most useful is an interview with the director. there’s a different interview, along with an interesting historical essay and a synopsis (but no track listing) in the booklet. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
All in all this is a very worthwhile disk.