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Donizetti’s Les Martyrs–Complete and Exciting

Robert Levine

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Coming in at a tidy three hours and eight minutes, Donizetti’s huge Les Martyrs, composed (or adapted) for Paris in 1840, is here presented in its fullest conceivable form, including ballet and many passages cut right after the first performances. The opera was a reworking of his 1838 Poliuto, composed for the San Carlo in Naples, which had been banned by the king himself, since Christian martyrdom under the Romans was found unpleasant by the censors and the king was devoutly religious. (Donizetti and his librettist did everything they could to make the story into a tale of jealousy instead, but it was still too sacrilegious.)

Donizetti took the idea to Paris, where he had been having enormous success with Lucia, its French version, Lucie de Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, and others, and Eugène Scribe was called in to flesh out the libretto to the mammoth size preferred by the French. The plot is not complicated: Pauline, the daughter of the anti-Christian governor, Felix, was married to the Roman Proconsul, Sévère, who was believed to have died in battle; she is now married to the magistrate Polyeucte, who has secretly been baptized. Sévère returns and true love vs public duty vs loyalty vs clemency become the themes, with the real battle fought as the curtain falls: Christians vs lions. The opera was premiered at the Paris Opera in April of 1840, while La fille du regiment was still playing across town. It was Donizetti’s world, much to the horror of Berlioz.

I suspect we will never hear a better performance of this opera. The opera is, understandably, an odd meld of French and Italian music and conventions, and Mark Elder covers them all with great style and verve, neither “Frenchifying” the Cabaletta given to Sévère–a holdover from Poliuto–nor “Italianizing” the huge choruses and (somewhat tedious) ballet music. In some ways “Martyrs” is a mess–huge, pageant-like events take place just as we are getting involved in the characters’ personal stories and vice-versa–but there’s plenty of juicy music here and Elder and his period players make a meal of it. The chorus has plenty to do, whether impersonating Christians, pagans, or soldiers, and it does so with clarity.

The Polyeucte of Michael Spyres is remarkable. The role has one foot in bel canto and one in almost-heroic Meyerbeer and Verdi, and Spyres’ huge range (up to an E-natural at the close of his third-act aria, which may or may not have been written by the composer), clarion top, appealing tone, styles both exclamatory and tender are ideal for the part. Joyce El-Khoury, as his wife, Pauline, has a fine, big lyric voice, at ease with the coloratura she’s given, fluent in cantilena, dramatically on-the-money, and capable of the loveliest high pianissimos. The tone is appealingly dusky at times, and the vibrato adds warmth without intruding.

The complicated Sévère–soldier, confused husband still in love with his wife–comes to life in the meaty baritone of David Kempster’s reading: a good performance. Brindley Sherratt also must acknowledge mixed feelings as Félix, Pauline’s father; being a one-sided tyrant fails when family gets involved. As the booming, angry Callisthenes, who wants all Christians expunged, Clive Bayley is properly one-sided. Néarque, Polyeucte’s Christian friend, is stalwart tenor Wynne Evans.

Another recording of this opera, recorded live in Venice (sung in French, as is this Opera Rara performance) some time in the 1970s and starring a riveting Leyla Gencer with Renato Bruson as a terrific Sévère, has been circulating for years. And fascinating as it is, it is this one that is a must-have.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

    Soloists: Joyce El-Khoury (soprano), Michael Spyres, Wynne Evans (tenor), David Kempster (baritone), Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley (bass)

    Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Opera Rara Chorus, Mark Elder

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