Donizetti’s rarely performed Les Martyrs received a concert performance on November 4, 2014 at the Royal Festival Hall. It was streamed by the BBC on November 15. Based on a play by Pierre Corneille Polyeucte (1642) about Christian martyrdom, the opera started out as Poliuto set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. Intended for the San Carlo in Naples in 1838, Poliuto ran afoul of the Bourbon censors. Donizetti was incensed and withdrew the work. After moving to Paris he reset the music to a new libretto based on the same play written by the libretto machine that was Eugene Scribe.
The story involves oppressed Christians in third century Roman controlled Armenia. The role of Poliuto (Saint Polyeuctus, died January 10, 259) was originally intended for the great tenor Adolphe Nourrit. Nourrit had gone to Italy in an attempt to modify his technique after Gilbert Duprez had forever changed the way tenors sing by producing the high C from the chest. Nourrit had his confidence further diminished when Donizetti withdrew the opera. How much the loss of this role contributed to his suicide the following year (1839) is difficult to tell, but it obviously was a blow. As events played out Duprez created the part of Polyeucte when Les Martyrs was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1840. This casting likely would have thrown Nourrit out of his apartment window had he not already done so himself.
Les Martyrs is a long four act opera written to conform to the emergent French Grand Opera style epitomized by Meyerbeer’s operas. Poliuto which is a tighter work was not performed until after Donizetti’s death. Though not often performed it still logs more stagings than its French cousin. Virtually anything by the mature Donizetti is of interest, but Les Martyrs is not near the equal of the master’s best work.
This performance under the auspices of Opera Rara got everything possible out of the score. Though clocking in at more than four hours it was not the complete work. A few numbers were cut and the ballet music was incomplete.
Most of the musical interest lies with the soprano and tenor parts. Pauline is sung by Joyce El-Khoury. She’s Polyeucte’s wife who’s still carrying a torch for Sévère the Roman Pro-Consul whom she thought dead, but who unexpectedly turns up very much alive in Armenia. As he’s a baritone she gets over him and remains true to her husband who’s a recent convert to Christianity. She’s so faithful that she elects to be eaten, along with her spouse and the other Christians, by lions in the arena at the opera’s conclusion – thus The Martyrs. The young Lebanese soprano has a lovely lirico-spinto voice which is well suited to he role as the devout pagan who finally succumbs to Christianity. In Toi, qui lis dans mon coeur, ô ma mere! Pauline sing to her dead mother about the emotional conflict engendered by her feelings for her supposedly dead love Sévère and her duty to her husband. El-Khoury’s tone is bright and her ability to shade her voice and control its dynamics is excellent. This is a voice that holds great promise. In its current state it’s right for Violetta in Traviata or Desdemona in Otello. The voice might mature into the heavier Verdi roles. We’ll see.
The opera’s most demanding role is that of Polyeucte. No surprise as it was written for the virtuoso Duprez. The part was brilliantly sung by the outstanding American tenor Michael Spyres. Spyres seems destined to sing the most demanding tenor roles in the French and Italian repertory at every major house except the Met. Why he hasn’t sung there is as mysterious as the reasoning behind the company’s new labor contracts. His voice has darkened over the past five years, though his range has remained the same. In this performance he went as high as E above high C. His low notes were as impressive as his high ones. Here is the third act aria Mon seul trésor and the cabaletta Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples! with the high E.
The most beautiful number in the opera is the ensemble near the end of the third act. Jusqu’au sein du sanctuaire Though set to French words, it sure sounds Italian. This is Donizetti at his lyrical best. If the whole opera was at this level it would be a standard. The remaining parts were well cast. Mark Elder led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with vigor and sensitivity. He has fully absorbed the bel canto style, even in a French incarnation. Opera Rara will release the performance on CDs in the coming months
Donizetti’s Les Martyrs Nov 4, 2014
Polyeucte…..Michael Spyres (tenor)
Pauline…..Joyce El-Khoury (soprano)
Sévère….. David Kempster (baritone)
Félix…..Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Calisthènes…..Clive Bayley (bass-baritone)
Néarque….. Wynne Evans (tenor)
Opera Rara Chorus Renato Balsadonna (chorus director)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)