It was slightly unfortunate timing that Glyndebourne scheduled the UK professional premiere of Poliuto just six months after Opera Rara gave an astonishing concert performance of Les martyrs, Donizetti’s much grander French revision of the Italian original. The resulting Opus Arte release faces similarly stiff competition, albeit from Opera Rara’s splendid studio recording on CD rather than DVD/Blu-ray. By and large, the casting for Les martyrs is stronger – and listeners won’t have to suffer Mariame Clément’s gloomy staging.
Clément updates the action from third-century Armenia under Roman rule to a vaguely late-20th-century Balkan setting, her inspiration being the Siege of Sarajevo. This switch of time and place brings absolutely no new insights. The Roman proconsul Severo becomes a general in the invading force. Paolina, daughter of the city’s governor, was engaged to Severo but, believing him to be dead, she is now married to local nobleman Poliuto, who has secretly converted to Christianity. But Severo is very much alive and returns to claim Paolina, initiating a fierce love triangle which ends up – in the libretto at least – with Paolina also converting to the faith, then joining Poliuto in being thrown to the lions. Julia Hansen’s designs rely on grey monolithic slabs which slide back and forth across a largely bare stage, apart from a few props and video projections. Precious little use is made of differing levels and Clément’s blocking is stilted; it made for a turgid experience in the theatre and is little stronger on screen.
Happily, the musical performances still make a strong case forthe piece, if not as compelling as La Scala’s 1960 excavation (variously available, 11/97), which starred Franco Corelli, Maria Callas and Ettore Bastianini, all on gripping form. Here Michael Fabiano tries to invoke the ghost of Corelli by belting out the role of Poliuto at maximum decibel level. The young American tenor is an exciting talent but he forces far too hard for comfort. Ana María Martínez is a tortured Paolina, plumbing the emotional depths, and Matthew Rose is menacing as Callistene, High Priest of Jupiter. The most notable performance comes from Igor Golovatenko as Severo, his bronzed baritone negotiating legato lines with bel canto ease.
Donizetti’s score is very fine, clearly pointing the way for Verdi – the Act 2 finale provides an unmistakable foretaste of the triumphal scene from Aida. Enrique Mazzola does sterling work in the pit, injecting the score with the drama so sadly lacking on the stage. True Donizettians will want both versions of the opera, even if this Poliuto is better as an audio rather than a visual experience.