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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Severo – Juan Pons (baritone)
Felice – Harrie Peeters (tenor)
Poliuto – José Carreras (tenor)
Paolina – Katia Ricciarelli (soprano)
Callistene – László Polgár (bass)
Nearco – Paolo Gavanelli (baritone)
A Christian – Jorge Pita (tenor)
Chor der Wiener Singakademie, Wiener Symphoniker/Oleg Caetani
rec. live, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 6 March 1986
Synopsis in English, French and German
SONY 19075807802 [46:42 + 59:36]

Poliuto became something of a problem child for Donizetti. Written for San Carlo in Naples to a libretto by Cammarano, which was based on Corneille’s Polyeucte, depicting the life of an early Christian martyr, Saint Polyeuctus, the opera was finished in 1838, but before the rehearsals had begun, King Ferdinand II forbade the production for the simple reason that he couldn’t accept a Christian martyr being depicted on stage. Donizetti already had contacts in Paris and for the Opéra he revised Poliuto to a libretto by Eugene Scribe who had expanded the story to a four-act grand opera. It was titled Les martyrs and 80 % of the music was incorporated from Poliuto. It was presented in Paris in April 1840. In due time it reached Italy in a translation of the French version, titled I martiri. The original three-act version of Poliuto was not seen in Italy until November 1848 at Teatro San Carlo. By then Donizetti was already dead.

Poliuto never disappeared completely from the repertoire, as many others of Donizetti’s works. It was to and fro revived as a vehicle for dramatic tenors: Enrico Tamberlik, sang it at Covent Garden in 1852 and Francesco Tamagno, the first Otello, sang it in Rome in 1883. During the 20th century Beniamino Gigli sang it at La Scala in 1940 and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi took it to the Baths of Caracalla in 1948. Possibly the most famous production was at La Scala in December 1960 with Franco Corelli and Maria Callas, which also was recorded.

The present recording, was as far as I know the second recording ever, also recorded live at a concert performance in Vienna in 1986, and three years later Nicola Martinucci recorded it live at the Rome Opera. At the Donizetti Festival at Bergamo in 1993 Gianandrea Gavazzeni set it down with fairly unknown singers in the leading roles and finally in 2010 Gregory Kunde headed the cast, once again in Bergamo.

José Carreras in his early prime in the 1970s had one of the most beautiful tenor voices then before the public. He also sang, in the manner of his idol Giuseppe Di Stefano, with seldom heard intensity, and like his idol he too early moved over to heavier roles like Andrea Chenier, Don José, Don Carlo and Alvaro in La forza del destino. These two factors in combination contributed to a deterioration of his voice. He lost the bloom, the tone became tense and pinched at the top. The present recording, made when he was not yet 40, is ample demonstration of his decline. Whether the serious leukemia that he contracted in 1987 made an early impression on his vocal health is hard to know. However it is a rather worn tenor voice we hear on this recording. I’ll come back to these aspects in a moment, but let me first draw the outlines of the story:

It takes place in Roman Armenia during the reign of Roman emperor Decius, from 249 to 251 A.D. Paolina and Severo, a Roman general, love each other, but Severo is reported dead in a battle and Paolina’s father asks her to marry the noble Armenian Poliuto, even though she doesn’t love him. Poliuto, after hearing her talking in her sleep, believes she is unfaithful. He is about to convert to Christianity and Paolina follows him to the Christians’ secret meeting place. She becomes fascinated by the ceremony and also learns that the Romans have instituted a new law that punishes Christians with death. Severo returns from the war and learns to his despair that Paolina is married to another. Poliuto is thrown in prison where he dreams that Paolina is faithful. She visits him, he forgives her and she tries to persuade him to give up his faith, but he refuses and tells her he will be reborn to a better life. Paolina decides to follow him and convert to Christianity and they decide to die together. Severo begs her to reconsider her decision, but to no avail. The Christians are taken to the lions.

For this dark story Donizetti needed a dark and foreboding opening to the long overture, but after a while it suddenly radiates light and positive melodies, rhythmically attractive, and there is a noble melody which, I believe, depicts Poliuto’s brave decision to become a Christian. The chorus comes in towards the end of the overture, creating a sacred atmosphere with a hymn-like tune.

The chorus has quite a lot to do in this opera, whether as Christians, soldiers, ordinary people or Roman priests. The chorus of soldiers, which opens the last scene of the first act (CD 1 tr. 11), is suitably warlike with stirring trumpets. Generally the music is on a high level with several catchy melodies, the most beautiful perhaps Paolina’s first act aria Di qual soave lagrime aspersa č la mia gota! (CD 1 tr. 7). Unfortunately Katia Ricciarelli isn’t in best voice here. She is throaty and rather uneven, but the aria is still worth a listen. Severo has several solos, the first, in ž-time, expressing his joy when anticipating seeing Paolina again (CD 1 tr. 13). Juan Pons is certainly very good here, softly sung with fine legato. His second aria (CD 1 tr. 15) expresses his rage over Paolina’s treachery.

The High Priest of Jupiter, Callistene, is an evil character. He despises the Christians and he hates Paolina, since she once rejected him. But the role is sung by László Polgár, possessor of one of the most beautiful bass voices of his time, silken, warm and sonorous, and the way he sings Alimento alla fiamma si porga (CD 2 tr. 15), where he “urges the priests to keep the people’s hatred of the Christians alive”, is so beautiful that one is almost seduced. There are several other numbers that are highly attractive. The big ensemble that concludes the second act is glorious but is marred here by Carreras’s ham-fisted can belto singing. In the third act Paolina and Poliuto have a long scene (CD 2 tr. 16-18), and no one can deny that Carreras sings with conviction and deep involvement, but he sacrifices beautiful tone for intensity. In all honesty I have to admit that Ricciarelli delivers some finely sung lyrical phrases. In the relatively small part as Nearco, the leader of the Armenian Christians, we hear the young baritone Paolo Gavanelli, only a year after his professional debut. That he was to become a leading singer is very obvious from what we hear. I clearly remember hearing him as a very good Iago at Covent Garden some years later.

I haven’t heard any of the alternative recordings listed above, but presume that on sonic grounds this one is competitive. There are no intrusive noises, only applause, quickly faded out, after each act. The playing of the Wiener Symphoniker is without reproach and Oleg Caetani is a sure-footed Donizettian. His credentials are certainly spectacular: his father was the legendary conductor and composer Igor Markevitch, he was discovered by Nadia Boulanger and he studied conducting at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome under Franco Ferrara. Even though Carreras is decidedly below his best he is always worth hearing for his wholehearted identification with role and Ricciarelli has some good moments. The opera as such has many good musical moments. A drawback, besides those I have already mentioned, is the lack of libretto.

Göran Forsling


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