Les Martyrs: Revelatory Donizetti on disc from Opera Rara

Donizetti: Les Martyrs 

les-martyrs-opera-raraWhen Donizetti’s rarity Poliuto opened the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival a week ago, the music would already have been familiar to a number of audience members. Only last autumn, those operatic archaeologists Opera Rara had put on a concert performance of Les Martyrs, a rewrite of the opera for Paris, which was one of the standout operatic events of the season. Recorded just prior to that concert performance, this handsome set does full justice to a revelatory score.

Poliuto had fallen foul of the Neapolitan censor in 1838 and was pulled at the last minute. Adolphe Nourrit, for whom the title role was composed (and whose career was on the wane), felt betrayed by the opera’s cancellation and committed suicide the following year. Donizetti, commissioned to write his first opera for Paris, resolved to revise Poliuto. Eugene Scribe wrote a French text that conformed to the conventions of the Opéra, retaining much of the original music from Naples but fleshing out the characters more, developing choral scenes and adding new recitatives and the obligatory ballet.

Les Martyrs concerns the early Christians in Armenia and their Roman conquerors, determined to stamp out the religion. Pauline had been in love with Sévère, the Roman proconsul, but had married Polyeucte after being told that Sévère had been killed in battle. Polyeucte has converted to Christianity and the arrival of Sévère in the city, seeking Pauline, throws everything into confusion. When Polyeucte is arrested and condemned to death, Pauline also converts, prepared to die alongside her husband. “A roar is heard. The lions are about to attack” are the libretto’s alarming final stage instructions!

Donizetti’s rewrite made things even tougher for the tenor, based on the abilities of Gilbert Duprez to reach a high C sharp from the chest rather than employing head voice. Michael Spyres makes it sound easy. The American tenor, who so impressed in the title role in English National Opera’s Benvenuto Cellini, excels here, pinging out thrilling top notes, including a high E natural in the cabaletta “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples!” as Polyeucte resolves to stand by his friend Néarque and share his fate. Spyres gives a towering interpretation and Glyndebourne would be canny to book him should they wish to revive Poliuto in the near future.

The role of Pauline is almost as challenging as that of Polyeucte and Joyce El-Khoury gives a tremendous rendition. Her singing exhibits great dynamic control, from exquisite pianissimi to a glorious, silvery top of considerable power. Baritone David Kempster comes across with more presence in this recording than in the Royal Festival Hall, especially excelling in his duets with Pauline.

Other roles are all superbly taken, notably the two basses, Clive Bayley snarling as the fanatical high priest Callisthènes and Brindley Sherratt in rich voice as Félix (Pauline’s father).

Sir Mark Elder draws great playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Opera Rara Chorus, convincing us that this is indeed a great score. Listen to the Verdian concertante finale to Act III and you’ll need no great persuasion to add this to your collection. Presentation meets Opera Rara’s exemplary standards – sturdy digipak and slipcase, with full libretto and two excellent, informative essays. An essential purchase? Absolutely.

Opera Rara, 3 discs, 189 minutes (ORC52)

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