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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Les Martyrs - opera in four acts (1840)
Polyeucte, Magistrate of Mtyilene and Pauline’s husband who converts to Christianity - Michael Spyres (tenor); Pauline - Joyce El-Khoury (soprano); Sévère, The Roman Proconsul and Pauline’s first husband once believed dead - David Kempster (baritone); Felix, Pauline’s father, Governor of Mytilene - Brindley Sherratt (bass); Callisthenes, High Priest of Jupiter and implacable opponent of the Christians - Clive Bayley (bass); Néarque, leader of the Christians - Wynne Evans (tenor)
Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Mark Elder
rec. St. Clement’ Church, London, October and November 2014
Booklet essays by Dr Flora Willson and Jonathan Keates in English
Synopsis in English, French and German
Full libretto with English translation
OPERA RARA ORC52 [3 CDs: 77.21 + 74.01 + 36.50]

This recording is the twenty-third opera by Donizetti that Opera Rara have recorded. It was a major objective of the company’s progenitors to establish a core of recordings of the composer’s works when they conceived Opera Rara fifty years ago. Along the way there have been many trials and tribulations. Not least of these was when the long-running financial support by the Sir Peter Moores Foundation finished as it drew in its horns in respect of financial support to arts endeavours. Consequent on that, Opera Rara concluded a tie-up with the BBC alongside a change in artistic leadership with Sir Mark Elder taking an upfront position as Artistic Director. The first fruit of the liaison with the BBC was the recording of Caterina Cornaro (review). The second, Belisario (review) featured Joyce El-Khoury who, as here, is the female lead. A major difference in this recording is the use of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment of which Elder is a principal artist.

Living as I do near Manchester I have, for my own enjoyment as well as a reviewer, attended many performances conducted by Sir Mark Elder. One of the most memorable was the Verdi Centenary Concert in 2013 (review). In my review I described his conducting as inspirational. He has revitalised the Hallé Orchestra and is held in appropriate high esteem by them. Exactly what he draws out of an orchestra, be it a full symphony orchestra or a period instrument ensemble, is all too evident in this performance as in the other Donizetti works he has conducted for Opera Rara, the opéra-comique Rita, with the Hallé (review) and both Dom Sebastien (review) and Linda di Chamounix with Covent Garden forces (review). The drama and tension he builds in the concluding act in this performance is awesome. He inspires soloists and chorus to marvellous effect that convinces me that it is among the finest music Donizetti wrote. In seeing Maria Di Rohan, the second work the composer wrote for the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna and premiered in 1843, I was tempted to suggest that being present at the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco at La Scala on 3 March 1842 might have influenced Donizetti, particularly so in the tenor’s cabaletta and the duet between the Riccardo and Chevreuse (review). After Elder’s vibrant realisation of this orchestrally mature Donizetti work I began to wonder about the opposite possibility. I did so even whilst realising that Verdi was unlikely to have seen performances of Les Martyrs unless it was revived later. Verdi’s own choice for his first work for the Paris Opéra was a revision of his only operatic composition of 1843, I Lombardi, premiered eleven months after Nabucco. A biblical story, it became Jérusalem at the Paris Opéra in 1847. In the sources I have consulted there is no mention of Verdi visiting Paris at the time of the premiere of Les Martyrs, although he did so regularly later in the decade after Strepponi had settled there.

Thus far I have not mentioned the soloists in this story of Christian Martyrdom in ancient Rome and this despite it being a composition by the then reigning king of bel canto as well as the work being grand opera. I am uncertain if it is policy on Opera Rara’s part, but in the casting they seem to have reverted to the practice of using mainly British artists, or those so based, much as they did in their earlier years. The two glaring exceptions are in the casting of American Michael Spyres in the fiendishly high tenor role of Polyeucte and Canadian, Joyce El-Khoury as his wife. Given that Juan Diego Florez has only a titular role at Opera Rara, and is a Decca-contracted artist anyway, among the bunch of tenors who nowadays are able to make reasonable attempts at the coloratura tenor repertoire, Spyres is a good choice. Many will remember his standing in as Rodrigo in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at short notice on the first night of the Covent Garden new production a couple of years ago when Colin Lee dropped out on the day concerned. He got rave reviews. His tenor tone is pleasant and easy on the ear along with good diction and the ability to characterize the demanding situations of the role and blend with colleagues, not least Joyce El-Khoury, as his wife Pauline. His is a significant realisation although I was a little uncertain about the high note before the end of the cabaletta in act 3 (CD 2 tr.15).

Joyce El-Khoury sings with that warm flexible tone that distinguished her contribution to Belisario, whether in dramatic situations or the gentler ones of love or in high coloratura declamations complete with vocal decoration. Some softening of the consonants made following her French somewhat difficult, a problem as much due to the tessitura of the vocal demands as to her enunciation. David Kempster sings Pauline’s former husband, Sévère, who has to condemn her to death and order the lions to be released in that last dramatic scene. He is the reigning Verdi baritone of Welsh National Opera and sings with strong tone, a little too weighty on a couple of occasions inducing a touch of vocal unsteadiness but without detracting from his good diction and overall characterisation. Both the two latter qualities are evident in the singing of the two basses. Clive Bayley in particular portrays the malevolent Callisthenes quite superbly, relishing his demand that the errant Christians, Polyeucte and Pauline, are fed to the lions (CD 3 trs. 3-14). Whilst seeming to have to reach for his lower tones on occasion, Brindley Sherratt does likewise as Pauline’s father, despairing as she chooses to die with her husband. In the smaller, but vital role of Néarque, Wynne Evans is heard to pleasing musical and tonal effect: CD 1 trs. 3, 5-6 and elsewhere.

Also important to this Opera Rara issue is the work of Dr. Flora Willson of King’s College, Cambridge. In her new Critical Edition Willson restores the opera’s original French text and reinstates numerous musical passages that were excised from performing editions and have not been heard since its first performance. These are shown in blue in the full libretto, with English translation. In the accompanying booklet Dr. Willson also provides a scholarly essay that puts the composition of Les Martyrs in its historical and musical context. Despite the presence of names such as Leyla Gencer, Renato Bruson and Ferruccio Furlanetto in the 1978 Arts recording (review) this issue is far superior in performance, recording and overall vitality as well as providing the much appreciated background and full libretto.

Glyndebourne will stage the British premiere of Donizetti’s Poliuto, from which Les Martyrs was derived as I explain in the appendix below, in 2015. With many Glyndebourne performances making it on to film and appearing on the Blu-Ray and DVD, that promises to be a Donizetti premiere to look forward to. It will be conducted by Enrique Mazzola and directed by Mariame Clément, both of whom worked on the critically praised 2011 production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. American tenor Michael Fabiano will sing the title role and Ana Maria Martinez will play his wife. It could be a hint to Covent Garden that a production of Les Martyrs in Britain is long overdue.

Appendix — Donizetti and his later fame in Paris with operas in French.

After his seventh opera Zoraida di Granata was premiered in Rome in January 1822, Donizetti’s stock rose rapidly. Domenico Barbaja, impresario of the Royal theatres of Naples, faced with the loss of Rossini to Paris, contracted the young composer. Fifteen of the twenty operas Donizetti composed in the remainder of the decade were premiered in Naples but it was in Milan rather than Naples that the composer’s big breakthrough came. In May 1830 the Duke of Litta and two rich associates formed a Society to sponsor opera at La Scala. They were concerned to raise the musical standards that had seen Rossini, Meyerbeer and others decamp to Paris. They engaged most of the famous singers of the time including Giuditta Pasta and the tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini. Donizetti and Bellini, recognised as the two best Italian composers of the day were each contracted to write an opera for the season to a libretto set by the renowned Felice Romani. Litta and his associates failed to secure La Scala for their plans, which were realised instead at the Teatro Carcano. It was in that theatre that Anna Bolena was first heard on 26 December 1830 and spread Donizetti’s name around the world.

With his fame spreading and horizons widening and being constantly frustrated by the censors in Naples, who demanded happy endings, Donizetti cancelled his contract in 1832 and left the city. Two years later he returned as musical director of the Royal Theatres and a contract to write one opera seria for the San Carlo each year. The first of these was to have been Maria Stuarda, but the censors famously interfered again, objecting to the tragic ending and perhaps also a scene between the two queens. The latter ended up in violence at the rehearsal. In little more than two weeks Donizetti rearranged the music to a new libretto, Buondelmonte. Needless to say it was only a moderate success.

During a trip to Paris at Rossini’s invitation he presented Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien in March 1835. During the visit he became aware of the higher musical standards and experienced the better remuneration available in Paris than in Italy and planned to return. Back in Naples he presented Lucia di Lammermoor in September 1835; it was rapturously received. With the premature death of Bellini in the same year, and Rossini no longer composing opera, Donizetti could claim pre-eminence among Italian opera composers. He fulfilled his contract at the San Carlo with L’Assedio di Calais in 1836, Roberto Devereux in October 1837 and wrote Poliuto for 1838. This story of Christian martyrdom in Roman times worried the Naples censors. With the work complete Donizetti was told that the King, a deeply religious man, had personally forbidden its staging in Naples. Donizetti replaced it with Pia de’ Tolomei, previously premiered in Venice in February 1837.

The banning of Poliuto was the final straw for Donizetti who left Naples for Paris in October 1838. Once there he agreed to write two operas in French, importantly including one to be performed at the prestigious Académie Royale de Music, as The Opéra was called. For this vital commission he engaged Eugène Scribe, doyen of grand opera librettists for The Opéra, to produce an expanded French text of Poliuto based on Cammarano’s original Italian libretto. Whilst awaiting the ever-dilatory Scribe to complete the new libretto, Donizetti presented a French version of Lucia at the Théâtre de la Renaissance and wrote La Fille du régiment premiered at the Opéra Comique on 11 February 1840. For the revised Poliuto he re-wrote the recitatives, divided act one into two and wrote a new finale. He also added arias, trios and the de rigueur ballet, all in the French style. The new four-act version was premiered as Les Martyrs at The Opéra on 10 April 1840. That same night all three of his operas were being performed in the theatres of Paris. If it had not been past the end of the season, Rossini’s Théâtre Italien might well have featured his L’Elisir d’ Amore that had been wowing the audiences earlier in the year. Some achievement. Poliuto in its original form was not performed until 1848.

Robert J Farr



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