Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Opera Rara Chorus and soloists Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley and Wynne Evans.

Donizetti’s Les Martyrs was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1840.
The work was created in double-quick time and was based on his Italian opera
Poliuto, which had been cancelled just before the premiere in Naples
owing to the plot’s element of religious martyrdom. Such subjects were,
however, standard territory for the Paris Opera and Donizetti was able to
re-cast the work as a four-act French Grand Opera with ballet to a new libretto
by Eugene Scribe.Though Donizetti kept much of the original music it was
re-cast into the sort of forms expected by the rather prescriptive Paris Opera.
The result is an opera which fascinatingly moves between French and Italian
forms so that, for example, SÈvËre has a very Italian caballetta embedded in
the very French grand choral finale to Act two.

It is a long work, Sir Mark Elder and his forces gave us well over three
hours of music even without performing the ballet. And it is written on a large
scale, for large forces. The orchestra fielded a complement of around 50
strings, double woodwind plus piccolo and four bassoons (which Donizetti used
to lovely effect in the overture), four horns, four trumpets, four trombones
and an off-stage banda for four trumpets and three trombones. The French kept
valveless horns for far longer than anyone else, so the horns were all hand
stopped and each had a bewildering array of crooks, and the trumpeters
similarly had two or three different instruments.

Set in Roman Armenia, the opera opens with the baptism into Christianity of
the general Polyeucte (Michael Spyres). But Christians are proscribed, and
Polyeucte is married to Pauline (Joyce El-Khoury) who is daughter of the
governor FÈlix (Brindley Sherratt). FÈlix is introducing new laws threatening
execution on anyone who gets baptised. The resulting struggle between pagan and
Christian, public duty and private belief, is exacerbated by the fact the the
new proconsul come to prosecute the new anti-Christian laws is SÈvËre (David
Kempster) whom Pauline once loved (and still does) but thought was dead on the
battle field.

The plot provides plenty of the ceremonial opportunities necessary in French
Grand Opera, processions in the dark in catacombs, a Roman triumph, pagan
ceremonies and the final throwing of the Christians to the lions in the arena.
Donizetti doesn’t try to re-invent or re-structure the tradition as Verdi
would do, and the work is not the masterpiece that Rossini’s Guillaume
is, but the music here is rich and rewarding. And the very Italian
cast to the melodic material makes for an additional frisson.

One of the key scenes, however, would be a problem for modern producers I
think. Pauline visits Polyeucte in prison and after he prays, she receives a
vision and converts miraculously to Christianity. Donizetti’s response is to
write some lovely music, unfortunately Pauline responds musically with an
elaborate waltz which sounds completely out of key emotionally (though
El-Khoury sang it beautifully). But the more personal scenes are very strong,
particularly the third act with its confrontations between Pauline and
SÈvËre, Pauline and Polyeucte, the questioning of Polyeucte’s Christian
friend NÈarque (Wynne Evans) and finally Polyeucte;s revelation of his
Christianity and triumphant cabaletta which concludes the act. This was
Donizetti at his best.

The role of Polyeucte was written for Gilbert Duprez, one of the singers
that effectively invented the modern tenor voice; taking the chest voice up to
top C and banishing the elaborate falsetto coloratura that was common until
then. Whilst heroic for its time, Polyeucte requires a singer who can combine
heroics with stamina, sustaining the high tessitura of the role but still able
to sing with finesse and flexibility. The American tenor Michael Spyres has
sung quite a number of the tenor roles in the early 19th century French Grand
Opera repertoire (we saw him in Auber’s La muette de Portici in
Paris in 2012) and his performance as Polyeucte was nothing less than heroic.
He sang with untiring burnished tone, giving us fine nobility of phrasing and
some finely flexible decorative passages. Dramatically he brought strong
commitment to the role, making it believable and certainly a lot more than just
a string of arias and ensembles.

The role of Pauline varied between dramatic declamation and ravishingly
elaborated coloratura; it seemed as if Pauline’s response to stress was to
break out in roulades. El-Khoury not only sang these beautifully, but used her
lovely smoky voice to give dramatic weight to Pauline’s more vehement
moments. You could imagine the role being sung with more weight and bite, but
the original Pauline was Julie Dorus-Gras who created Berlioz’s Teresa and
Eudoxie in Halevy’s La Juive – both roles with roulades galore. Like
Spyres, El-Khoury brought dramatic commitment as well as technical poise to
create a highly sympathetic and ravishing performance.

David Kempster was brilliant as SÈvËre, deprived of his lover Pauline yet
required to find clemency for her husband. Kempster let fly brilliantly in the
cavatina and caballetta the are part of the act two finale, and elsewhere
brought finesse and sympathy to the role. Brindley Sherratt thundered
magnificently as the governor FÈlix, but this was not a one-sided performance
and Sherratt showed the character’s sympathetic side in his interchanges with
his daughter. On the other hand, all Clive Bayley’s character of
CallisthËnes was required to do was thunder and he did so magnificently too.
Wynne Evans was NÈarque, Polyeucte’s Christian friend. This is the second
tenor role, required to hang around and sing duets with the tenor and generally
start things off before the lead tenor gets the fireworks. Evans sang with some
style and showed a real feeling of commitment as the Christian withstood the
threats of torture.

The Paris Opera required operas to make good use of the chorus and there
were plenty of opportunities here for the excellent Opera Rara Chorus, which
was made up of both Christians and pagans. They sang with energy and verve,
giving us some lovely detailed singing. Chorus members Rosalind Waters, Andrew
Friendhoff and Simon Preece all provide strong support in small solo

With a long, unfamiliar score the whole performance could have felt horribly
flat but Mark Elder drew a stunning performance out of the orchestra, full of
life and energy. They gave some really thrilling vital playing, with copious
details articulated brilliantly so that the whole had real vitality. There were
also some fine solo moments from individual players.

Les Martyrs is not a forgotten masterpiece, but it is by no means a
write-off. The mature Donizetti’s first response to the challenge of writing
French Grand Opera, it is a fascinating transitional work. Written on such a
lavish scale, opportunities of seeing it even in concert are rare so Opera Rara
are to be congratulated on being able to not only perform it but to do a studio
recording as well. Mark Elder and his forces did the work proud and gave a
thrillingly engrossing performance.

The performance was recorded for release on Opera Rara’s own CD label,
available soon. For more details, visit the Opera Rara website. it will also be
broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15th November at 6.15pm GMT.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]
product_title=Donizetti’s Les Martyrs — Opera Rara, London
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Russell Duncan]