‘A credo in four acts’ was Berlioz’s withering dismissal of Donizetti’s grand opéra, which premiered in 1840. Considering Berlioz’s bitterness over the failure of Benvenuto Cellini at the Opéra in 1838, you can’t help getting a nasty whiff of sour grapes from the comment. His exasperation was also fuelled by the fact that Donizetti was supplying operas not just to the Académie Royale de Musique at the time but also the Opéra Comique (Fille du régiment) and the Théâtre de la Renaissance (Lucie de Lammermoor). ‘One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of Donizetti.’
As with Rossini turning two of his Neapolitan operas into French scores and as Verdi was later to do with I lombardi/Jérusalem, in order to create Les Martyrs Donizetti turned to a pre-existing though unperformed score, his Poliuto. Banned by the Neapolitan powers, and incidentally causing the death by suicide of Adolphe Nourrit who was to sing the main role, we have the opportunity to go compare the two versions in the near future as Glyndebourne will be performing Poliuto next summer. For Les Martyrs, the story stays much the same with some differences in characterisation but with the inclusion of the obligatory ballet and some new music. This performance of the new critical edition included much music that had been cut before the premiere but the ballet was cut to just the dance for the gladiators, a jolly piece providing a bit of couleur locale, with high timpani notes and antique trumpets.
Les Martyrs never really entered the repertoire at the Opéra, with a short original run of just 18 performances and only two on its revival in 1843, before falling foul of a change of directorship and the fact the soprano role wasn’t suitable for the new director’s mistress, who happened to be the prima donna Rosine Stoltz. Despite the grandeur of this evening’s performance by Opera Rara and Donizetti’s impressive achievement with this adaptation, Les Martyrs does lack some of the southern warmth and energy of Poliuto as Charles Osborne has noted. On the basis of this performance though, I still wouldn’t want to be without the French version.
Very much a case of the soprano and the tenor are in love but the baritone isn’t happy about it. Except that in this case neither the basses nor the chorus are impressed with the situation either – but the lions are content to go along with the outcome. Prior to events in the opera, Pauline was betrothed to Sévère before receiving reports of his death. Her father then marries her off to Polyeucte, who converts to the outlawed sect in thanks to the Christian God for saving Pauline’s life when she falls ill; cue the return of Sévère and you have the set up for a good old ‘individual versus society’ drama and eventual tragedy.
As already mentioned, this performance added much music never heard before and, despite its length was surprisingly bearable with few longeurs and some pleasant surprises. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the capable hands of Mark Elder played stylishly throughout the performance. The opening of the overture with its sonorous four bassoons sounded delicious, the period bassoons having a mellower, saxophone-like timbre than the modern instrument. The strings were sprightly in the main theme and the brass had an extra punch and precision that didn’t overwhelm the other instruments, even in the exciting, frenetic rush to the finale. The period brass added to the distinctive sound of donizettian grand opéra, with ophecleide so markedly different to a tuba.
The orchestra played consistently well throughout, from a sweetly plangent clarinet solo introducing the recitative which precedes ‘Qu’ici ta main glacée’ in Act 1 to the awe-inspiring spatial effects during the triumphal chorus of Act 2, with stage band in an overhanging balcony that provided a blaze of imperial glory along with the two harps in the orchestra. It was overpowering in places, certainly it was by the end of Act 4 which almost showed the ‘fatal atmosphere of the Opéra’; just a phalanx of sound that varied so much from the transparent part writing of Poliuto, where you can differentiate between the lovers going to their death, the fanatical priests and the chorus shouting ‘all’arena, all’arena’. The players relished this chance to go ‘hell for leather’ though with even a couple of double-bass players smiling at each other as they ploughed through their part in ‘Gloire a vous Mars et Bellone’. At the other end of the spectrum, there were many delicate effects, as in the female chorus introducing Pauline with triangle solo and the two solo cellos of Polyeucte’s second aria.
The chorus added an appropriately religious tone during the overture, invoking the hymn tune which returns throughout the opera. The tenors occasionally tended towards shouting but the savagery of the Act 4 chorus ‘Il nous faut des jeux et des fêtes’ was both terrifying and theatrical, the music matched in its barbarity only by a chorus in La Juive that all too often is cut from performance.
Polyeucte is rather a one dimensional character, simply a zealous convert, but Michael Spyres more than capably took on the high register adapted for the vocal talents of Gilbert Duprez. He sang expressively during the recitatives and with a more secure upper register than I’ve heard before being used in ‘Que l’onde salutaire’, with its applause inspiring final chord. With ‘Mon seul tresor’, a new aria written for Paris, the tessitura demanded was not delivered with as much ease as Juan Diego Florez used to make it sound, but the tone was clear. It was in the following cabaletta, ‘Oui j’irai dans leur temples’, that Spyres proved his mettle; he descended treacherously into his baritonal register with control that is always so impressive before launching a note into the stratosphere with the finesse of a high school jock impressing his sweetheart by hitting the ball out of the park. I will admit that this humble critic would have roared along with the rest of the crowd if I weren’t so dashedly restrained.
Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline provided poise and often an intensity that coloured the character, so that even though this was a concert performance she was more than just a dutiful wife torn by her loyalties. She exhibited a lovely range with some exquisite pianissimi notes being elicited in her opening aria with her mouth barely open, contrasting with a rich lower register later in the same piece. Though I don’t think her voice is naturally particularly powerful, in places you could see she was reining in her voice and could clearly be heard over some of the louder passages. There was occasional harshness but this was controlled and sensitivity was shown in paying attention to what she was singing: her look of scorn at the thought of her husband joining the followers of ‘un crucifié’ was wonderful. She was straining a little in the trio ‘Objet de ma constance’ but this was a fine performance with some fragile filigree decoration of the vocal line in ‘Sévère existe’. Her high, held note leading into ‘O sainte melodie’ was sweet and delicate whilst the finale, when the lions are released, was a perfectly pitched piece of schmaltz as she and Spyres held hands.
As her father Félix, Brindley Sherratt produced a solid sound and gave a strong performance with a sepulchral growl at the end of his Act 2 aria ‘Dieux des romains’. The swelling cabaletta melody returned in Act 4 as he reiterated his earlier vow that he would be prepared to sacrifice his own daughter should she stand against the emperor’s decree to exterminate the Christians and here Sherratt brought appropriate authority and gravitas to the role which made up for his lack of spotlight moment in last year’s Fantasio.
Moving from one authority figure role to another, David Kempster, seen this year in WNO’s Guillaume Tell and Nabucco, took the role of Sévère, bringing warmth to a character that could be all bluster. There was some unwanted rumbling in his tone during his Act 2 aria, but his rich, yet light baritone was sustained well in the arc of the legato vocal line. In the Italianate Act 3 duet with Pauline, his pleading tones matched the Gilda-like sobbing from El-Khoury well, both expressing the frustrations and vulnerabilities of the characters, before their pleas to Félix were dashed by the rock hard voice of Sherratt. With the whole ensemble being involved, the Act 3 finale was giddyingly good, with the extraordinarily powerful concertato, originally from Maria de Rudenz, preceding a ferocious stretta.
There was good support in the smaller roles, particularly from Clive Bayley as the fanatical priest, Callisthènes, injecting menace into his imprecations whilst Wynne Evans as the fanatical yet wimpy Christian Néarque had a slightly nasal tone in his projection.
Full credit to Opera Rara and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a fine performance of a work unlikely to be put on by any other company in the near future due to the massive forces involved. If only they would now turn their attention to Le siège de Corinthe.