United Kingdom Donizetti :Les Martyrs (concert performance): Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 4.11.2014 (CC)
Poleucte: Michael Spyres (tenor)
Pauline: Joyce El-Khory (soprano)
Sévère: David Kempster (baritone)
Félix: Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Callisthènes: Clive Bayley (bass)
Néarque: Wynne Evans (tenor)
Opera Rara’s ongoing resurrection of forgotten or neglected operas is one of the musical glories of our time. Donizetti’s Les Martyrs is not quite an opera rescued from total obscurity as the work is intimately related to Poliuto, an opera that was written for Naples but which encountered censorship problems. Poliuto is famously available in a performance featuring Callas, and that opera is due to be performed at Glyndebourne next year (so perfect timing to present Martyrs here, then).
The score, heard here in a new critical edition by Flora Wilson, is notable for Donizetti’s orchestration – the overture features a quartet of bassoons (beautifully given here, with wonderfully woody tone) and there are a number of arias that feature obbligato solo instruments. The OAE includes some of our finest instrumentalists, and the standard throughout was remarkable. The score is a long one (7pm start, 1030pm finish, and even then there were some omissions: notably we got only one of a sequence of dances).
The story (the French libretto is by Eugene Scribe) centres around the persecution of early Christians, and interestingly Donizetti hedges his bets – there was the distinct impression, for example, that at one point at least Donizetti bats for the Pagans. The setting is third century Armania, under Roman rule. Here Christians are forced to meet in catacombs, in secret. Polyeucte, a magistrate in Mytilene, is converted; his beloved, Pauline, meanwhile, worships Prosperine (later in the opera we hear a hymn to Jupiter). Pauline’s father and Governor of Armenia, Félix, passes edicts to condemn Christians (an “impious sect”). The climax of the opera is the feeding of the Christians to the lions ; it just stops short of depicting this on stage!
Tenor Michael Spyres took the demanding role of Polyeucte. The part makes heroic demands, to which Spyres was absolutely the equal, including a ringing, stratospheric climatic note at one point right at the extreme top of the tenor register that took the audience by storm. Yet he had heroic lyricism at his disposal also, and he was on form right from the off. By contrast, soprano Joyce El-Khoury took a little while to find her way into the role of Pauline. Once there, though, she was every inch Spyres’ equal. Both of these principal roles include more than their fair share of fireworks, which here emerged as an integral part of Donizetti’s emotional vocabulary.
Baritone David Kempster was a solid Roman proconsul Sévère, and it was wonderful to see and hear the experienced Brindley Sherratt as Félix. Clive Bayley, whose career keeps on growing (he made is New York Met as the Doctor in Wozzeck earlier this year), was an impressive presence both physically and vocally as Calisthènes, the High Priest of Jupiter. Singing the role of Néarque, Plyeucte’s Christian friend, was Wynne Evans, who I subsequently discovered is the tenor in the “Go Compare” adverts. Unfettered by this knowledge during the performance itself (is there more off-putting information?), Evans came across as pleasingly toned and highly musical. Thought he looked familiar.
But the whole was most certainly vastly more than the sum of its parts, and the credit for that lies at the feet of Sir Mark Elder. His experience in the opera house was everywhere in evidence in the care lavished on what on paper must look like the simplest, most conventional of gestures. It is his ability to take these and elevate the experience, convincing us during the course of the performance that we are in the presence of a masterwork, that truly impresses. On the larger scale, Elder clearly tracked the trajectory of the work enabling its vast structural edifice to tower magnificently before us. The orchestra gave their all for him, as did the lusty chorus, enabling his vision of the opera to gel magnificently. This type of grand opera reminds us of the true stature of Donizetti.
There will be a recording issued in due course, and it is one that every opera lover should seek out. Once again, a gift of an evening from Opera Rara.