Donizetti: Les Martyrs

Here in the UK, in recent years Opera Rara have introduced us to Belisario
in the concert hall, conducted by Sir Mark Elder and subsequently
released on CD along with Caterina
(conducted by David Parry). Even the touring companies have
got in on the act, with English Touring Opera programming L’assedio di
and Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo this spring (
spring tour 2015
). The breadth of Donizetti’s achievement is now being
recognised, matching the success which the composer realised in his day —
when, mordantly, Berlioz would complain that ‘One can no longer speak of the
opera houses of Paris, only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti’.

When Donizetti’s first grand opera, Les Martyrs, premiered at the
Paris OpÈra in April 1840 it was one of three works by Donizetti then
entertaining the French capital, with La Fille du regiment playing at
the OpÈra-Comique and Lucia di Lammermoor keeping the seria
fans happy at the ThȂtre de la Renaissance. Les Martyrs was a
re-working of Il Poliuto, after the latter had been rejected by the
censors at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples. Spotting an opportunity to make use
of his labours to fulfil a commission at the OpÈra, the composer asked EugËne
Scribe to expand and re-order Salvatore Cammarano’s three-act Italian
libretto into a French grand opera of four acts with requisite spectacle,
processional choruses and extravagant ballet.

The opera’s religious subject matter proved more of a hit with the
Parisians than it had done with the blue-pencil wielding Neapolitans. The
action takes place in the third century, in MÈlitËne, the capital of Armenia
which is under Roman rule. The conflicts are both public and private. The
violent tension between the two opposing factions — the fervent Christians on
the one hand, and their persecutors, the tyrannical Romans on the other — is
embodied more intimately by the protagonists, Polyeucte, a Roman convert to
Christianity, shortly to be baptised, and his wife, Pauline, daughter of the
Armenian governer, FÈlix, who secretly longs for her former beloved, SÈvËre,
a Roman general feared to have perished on the battleground. Both suffer inner
schisms: Polyeucte is torn between his love for his wife Pauline and that,
which proves stronger, for his new God, while Pauline’s obedience to her
father is tested by her loyalty to her husband and her lingering feelings for

Even the latter faces his own dark night of the soul when, later, he has to
choose between his duty to the Emperor and his love for Pauline. When he duly
re-appears after his near-death — his bravery and survival celebrated by
triumphal choruses and a gladiatorial display — SÈvËre is crowned proconsul
by the Emperor for his heroic feats, and offered Armenia as a dowry for
whomever he chooses as his wife. Distraught to find Pauline has married
Polyeucte while he himself has been steadfastly serving the Empire, SÈvËre
attends sacrifices in his honour at the Temple, during which Polyeucte declares
his Christian faith (in order to save his fellow convert NÈarque). SÈvËre
now finds himself ordered to carry out the execution of his beloved’s new
husband. Pauline, wracked by multiple allegiances, urges Polyeucte to renounce
his God and acknowledge the Roman deities, but at the eleventh hour she
experiences her own Damascene conversion. Despite the desperate please of
SÈvËre and FÈlix, the Christian couple accept their martyrdom and the
curtain falls to the entry of the lions.

Temples and palaces, vast amphitheatres, gladiatorial combat, Greek and
Roman dance, with a pride of hungry lions thrown in at the close: it’s not
surprising that it went down well with the Parisian grand opera crowd. The
critical press was more mixed, however, and the production not quite as
successful as Donizetti might have hoped. It received 18 performances but when
it was revived in 1843 it closed after only two nights. In the ensuing years it
resurfaced in an Italian translation, as I martiri, and then largely
faded from view. Ironically, the more concise Il Poliuto, given its
Naples premiere in November 1848 fared better and stayed in repertory
throughout the nineteenth century.

Now we have an opportunity to compare both works, for in the same month that
Glyndebourne Festival Opera have opened their 2015 season with the Italian
‘version’ of the work, Il Poliuto (Glyndebourne
), Opera Rara have issued a CD recording of Les Martyrs,
having performed the opera in a concert version with the Orchestra of the Age
of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Mark Elder, at the Royal Festival Hall in
November 2014 ( Opera Rara
). This recording presents the new critical edition prepared for that
performance by Dr Flora Wilson of King’s College Cambridge and, as the CD
booklet tells us, restores, ‘various cuts made to the score of Les
before the first performances in Paris … [allowing] us to hear
several passages of music never before played in public, and to appreciate the
opera in a version much close to Donizetti’s original intentions’. In the
Festival Hall last November these ‘reinstatements’ included both short
passages of extra recitative and arioso, as well as longer passages — for
example, in the end-of-Act 1 trio with chorus and in SÈvËre’s Act 3
cabaletta. The ballets, which were not all heard in the concert performance,
are here played in their entirety.

So, is Les Martyrs as lost master-piece? Not exactly, but in this
committed, serious performance it has its thrilling moments. Sir Mark Elder’s
pacing is decisive but flexible, and he gives characteristically meticulous
attention to all details of orchestration and harmony. And, it’s a large
orchestra: almost 50 string players are supplemented by double woodwind
(stretching to a quartet of bassoons, 4 players of each brass instrument plus
an off-stage complement, percussion, 2 harps — and, ophicleide.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led by Matthew Truscott, play
with enormous energy and verve. The reedy tones — valve-less horns and
bassoons — at the opening of the overture establish a suitable air of
righteous nobility, before warm bass pizzicatos and timpani repetitions inject
forward movement, and before we know it the violins are scurrying and dancing
with perfect synchronicity and crystal-clear incisiveness. The acceleration is
seamless, as woodwind and brass interjections evolve into more assertive
declamations; a spiralling bass descent takes us back to more restrained
solemnity. Elder’s ability to move from intimacy to spaciousness is
impressive throughout.

The recorded sound is bright and very ‘present’, perhaps a little too
much so … but, it enables us to enjoy much superb instrumental playing. A
wonderfully phrased clarinet solo introduces Pauline’s confessions before her
mother’s tomb in Act 1, while her Act 3 meditations as she sits dreamily in
her chamber are prefaced by beautifully intoned horn passages which give way to
a silky flute solo, which is itself superseded by a snaky clarinet motif — a
perfect musical representation of her avowals, fears and passions. The punchy
precision and glossiness of the brass in the ‘Lutte des Gladiateurs’,
complemented by vivacious timpani playing and taut string passagework, is
stunning, and the subsequent dances, ‘Pas de deux’ and ‘Danse
Militaire’, whip up a storm. There is effortless conversation between the
various instrumental groups, as in the introductory bars of Polyeucte’s Act 3
aria, in which he foresees Pauline’s religious conversion: a legato prayer
from the oboe, accompanied by low clarinets and punctured by a timpani bass, is
transferred to the horns by way of a sinuous violin phrase.

The chorus (46 singers) are thunderously bombastic when volume and
ebullience are required, as in the choral-finale to Act 3, or in Act 4 when the
blood-thirsty crowd salivate over the of the sacrificial Christians who will be
ripped limb from limb by the raging lions; but elsewhere they adopt a suitably
restrained resonance, as in the balanced and well-blended Act 1 off-stage
Chorus of Christians who witness Polyeucte’s baptism.

Michael Spyres is superb as Polyeucte, exhibiting infinite stamina, an
incredibly strong chest register and an amazing top — demonstrated par
in the Act 3 ‘Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples!’, where his
final top E pings electrifyingly before settling with consummate control down
an octave; here Spyres’ elasticity and suave sound impeccably, and
terrifyingly, capture the mesmerising self-belief of the zealous martyr-to-be.
But, the tenor shows his awareness of the full range of bel canto gestures —
not merely its show-stopping audacity — and there is subtlety and a perfectly
spun pianissimo in the preceding ‘Mon seul trÈsor, mon bien supreme’.

The role of Pauline was one which was greatly expanded by Scribe, and
Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury matches Spyres for passion and power, if not
always for clarity and control. There is a beguiling joyful Èlan, though —
not to mention impressive coloratura agility — to her expression of delight
that ‘SÈvËre existe!’ in Act 2. And, El-Khoury’s Act III duet with
David Kempster’s SÈvËre ‘Ne vois-tu pas qu’hÈlas! mon cúur succombe
et cËde ‡ sa douleur?’ is something to savour. But, elsewhere I find
Kempster’s rather wide vibrato sometimes disrupts the prevailing precision of
Elder’s direction, although he copes well with the demands of the role —
perhaps the most interesting dramatically — which repeatedly pushes the
baritone voice high. Moreover, Kempster makes a terrific contribution to the
Act 2 finale (not least because his French diction is excellent).

Brindley Sherratt roars impressively as FÈlix — his Act 2 aria, ‘Dieux
des Romains’ has the portentous authority of a Sarastro — and he is matched
for imperiousness by Clive Bailey’s CallisthËnes, the priest of Jupiter who
brings news of SÈvËre’s survival and promotion. The role of NÈarque is
very much that of ‘second tenor’, but Wynne Evans makes a strong

The recording is accompanied by a handsome book containing a synopsis, the
libretto text in French and English, and informative articles by Flora Wilson
and Jonathan Keates which establish the contemporary musical and political
contexts and trace the genesis of the Les Martyrs and its relationship
to Il Poliuto, lightened by plenty of anecdotes concerning the
rivalries and ripostes of the day, as well as illustrations of Donizetti’s
contemporaries and colour photographs of the modern-day cast and the OAE in

So, will Les Martyrs become an opera house staple in future?
Probably not: the practical obstacles — length, scale and forces required —
not to mention the general lack of character development might deter many an
artistic director. And, while we’re quite used suspending disbelief in the
opera house, modern audiences might find Pauline’s eleventh-hour
transfiguration to be just one step too far beyond the bounds of credibility
(and Donizetti doesn’t help, giving Pauline a waltz-like number which sounds
far too ditzy). Then, what to do about the lions?

Elder gives us an exhilarating sound and sweeps us up in the melodramatic
pell-mell. But, perhaps the more compact Il Poliuto will win the day?

Claire Seymour

Cast and other performers:

Polyeucte: Michael Spyres; Pauline: Joyce El-Khoury; SÈvËre: David
Kempster; FÈlix: Brindley Sherratt; CallisthËnes: Clive Bayley; NÈarque:
Wynne Evans. Conductor: Sir Mark Elder. Opera Rara Chorus, Orchestra of the Age
of Enlightenment. Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs].

Click here for direct purchase from Opera Rara.


image_description=Donizetti: Les Martyrs (Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs])
product_title=Donizetti: Les Martyrs
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Opera Rara ORC52 [3CDs]