Cher Public

You can’t hide your lion eyes

untitled-5The UK’s first-ever production of Poliuto, now available from Opus Arte on DVD, set the lions of Rome among the lambs of Glyndebourne. Donizetti’s dramatic opera (or tragedica lirica) was completed in the summer of 1838, a year following Roberto Devereux and two years before La fille du regiment and La favorite, closer to the end of the composer’s career than to the beginning.

The opera dramatizes conflicts of romantic and religious natures. In the third century A.D., Armenia’s Roman conquerors, the worshippers of Jupiter, seek to eradicate Christianity. Paolina (soprano), daughter of Mitilene governor Felice (tenor), has heeded her father’s urging to marry the principal magistrate, Poliuto (tenor). 

The opera begins with Poliuto’s secret conversion to Christianity. Roman proconsul Severo (baritone), thought dead in battle, returns and pursues his old lover, Paolina. The high priest of Jupiter, Callistene (bass), who has coveted Paolina himself, arranges for Poliuto to spy Paolina in an intimate encounter with Severo.

Poliuto outs himself as a Christian and is scheduled for feeding to the lions. Paolina visits him in prison, where his unshakable faith in the Christian God moves her to renewed (or newfound) marital love. Husband and wife die together as Christians, Severo’s last-ditch attempt to save Paolina going for naught.

Director Mariame Clément speaks on the DVD’s extra feature about Poliuto as a story of oppression and persecution through the ages, of events that have happened again and again. She notes that reviewers assumed she was making allusions to various events in not-too-distant history, and that “everyone [was] right.”

Nevertheless, one may watch the production and think above all of the fascist Italy of Mussolini. Visuals evoke the middle of the 20th century, minus a decade or two. This is a common choice today in productions of “ancient times” operas (the Royal Opera House’s current Nabucco does something similar), perhaps because it keeps directors and designers from presenting something too museum-exhibit fusty while protecting conservative audiences from the horrors of modern dress.

With the demographic breakdown of a typical opera audience, maybe the middle 20th century provides childhood nostalgia as well. “My mum wore a kerchief like that!”

The highest compliment that can be paid Mme. Clément is that she and her team tell the story of Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto clearly. We can always tell the Christians (the men wear bald caps, the women unflattering bobs) from the followers of Jupiter. Set designer Julia Hansen does spare, uneccentric work for an intimate venue with utilitarian efficiency.

There is little variety in look or sense of place. Dark stone slabs separate to form columns for some scenes, join for towering walls in others. There is never very much on the stage to move in and out, just what is needed for a scene, for example, the marital bed that Poliuto sees his wife and Severo defiling (only with tender conversation, but in an opera of this period, that is transgression enough).

Discreet video projections by our friends at fettFilm flicker across Ms. Hansen’s sets. One gets hints of nature, clouds, a highway with cars in a military/political procession, prison bars, an arena. The eye apprehends these images, a shift in the environment is suggested, and then the images fade. Effective.

I am about to drop one of those sourballs into a review, and there is no way around it. We see so much ineptitude on the stages now, in fundamental musical matters, and then see the ineptitude praised highly by people who are supposed to know better, that I hate to criticize this cast at all. They are good singers. But I must try to say useful and honest things, and hope that I can be fair.

The first thing that struck me about the much-heralded American tenor Michael Fabiano, in the title role, was that he knows how to feed the breath to create, guide and sustain a good line. This is not something we have the luxury of taking for granted. The middle voice is virile and compelling. He makes a healthy sound with generous breadth (here and there, he might have pulled it back a little), a slight bleat on the top notes.

Fabiano, 31 at the time, discharges his responsibilities as singer and actor with care. You can see him thinking it all through. Perhaps one admires him in this role without “warming” to him, without seeing whatever magic accomplished that might have drawn us into Poliuto’s Stiffelio-like dilemma, the balancing of a human desire for revenge on Paolina and Severo with the counsels of scripture. This is a performance of discernment rather than abandon–confidence that the effects of the rehearsal room will land when properly executed on the stage.

There is some “role debut-itis” about Ana María Martínez‘s Paolina as well. The impression is of a highly competent and seasoned singer applying what she knows to a character new to her, without a strong and specific identification having been forged. She makes gestures she has worked out with Mme. Clément, gestures that are generally apposite, and one perceives them as just that: “gestures.”

She overshoots one vocal climax, but otherwise brings precision to tuning and rhythm. The timbre is dusky; there is an opacity in the way the sound is placed and produced. It is not, I think, a soprano sound to love, but one to enjoy hanging out with. In a signature role such as Cio-Cio San, the singer may find and communicate more.

Baritone Igor Golovatenko makes the most purely beautiful sound among the members of the love triangle. He is less musically assured than his tenor and soprano colleagues. His pitches can be vague, with a tendency to swim and slide in the middle, clambering onto the notes. The throat is a little ahead of the ear. His acting is of the hand-over-heart variety, and his eyelids lower when something is really deeply felt.

He has spent several formative seasons with the Bolshoi, and the sound he makes will lead to many descriptions such as “velvet-voiced baritone” from people on a word limit. This Severo is a performance one calls promising while reserving final judgment. He is young and looks good; I imagine we will be seeing much more of him. In this production, it should be noted, Severo’s left arm hangs uselessly at his side (war wound). Golovatenko remembers not to move it.

Matthew Rose‘s pleasant, young-sounding lighter bass is adequate to the skimpy role of Callistene, meaning it does not disappear in ensembles. An Italian singer, the tenor Emanuele D’Aguanno, somehow got into a cast of an Italian opera, as Poliuto’s friend Nearco. D’Aguanno is good in the little he has to work with. When Nearco bravely refuses to name the latest Christian convert (our hero), the tenor’s delivery provides the most meaningfully inflected words we hear all evening.

Enrique Mazzola‘s leadership of the London Philharmonic Orchestra is steady in tempo, crisp in articulation. The Glyndebourne Festival Chorus sounds just like an English chorus singing an Italian text with which they do not have long experience, but the group supplies energy and attention to musical matters under the direction of Jeremy Bines.

Mme. Clément is not skillful or inventive in her direction of them. They stand around, raise fists in salute, and at one point mimic the lead tenor’s hand-to-head pose, looking for all the life like a group print ad for Excedrin. The quality of the recording puts voices forward, probably the desirable outcome in a primo ottocènto Italian opera.

The experience of watching and listening to this DVD is always painless, often enjoyable, but not, in my evaluation, transporting or moving. To a listener of the right musical proclivities, a new recording of Poliuto or any lesser-known Donizetti opera made in deluxe conditions, featuring fresh voices with more ahead of them than behind, may be something worth celebrating.

If the stage production filmed here is not inspired, it is not stupid or ruinous either. Certainly, there is more here to like than there is in many opera DVDs that get released. But a disinterested party may wish there were still more to like. If there were some way to persuade a neutral listener in 2016 that Poliuto is an overlooked masterpiece and that the UK premiere of it was a significant event, I cannot say that that happened.

The production inspires good feeling for the people involved in it, rather than a powerful musical and dramatic experience with Poliuto itself. Watching this very modern, very professional cast go through the paces, carefully passing around this artifact of another time and place, I thought, fittingly, of a church service. You can file in, kneel when you are supposed to, stand when you are supposed to, sing when you are supposed to, and file out. But in your heart, are you a believer?

  • In John Boswell’s “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe,” he tells the full story of the Polyeuctus-Nearcos relationship which was as lovers in the Roman army, a common situation. When Nearcos was arrested for being a Christian, Polyeuctus left his home and turned himself in so they could die together. It didn’t happen that way--Nearcos was executed and that night appeared in Polyeuctus’ dreams urging him to be steadfast at his own execution the next day telling him and his reward was to be with Nearcos forever in Heaven (note, not with God but with Nearcos). The Orthodox Church, officially very homophobic, honors them as saints, and honors several other paired Military Saints as well with churches named after them, etc.

  • I think this is a very impressive review! Bravo, Porgy!!!

  • PATRICK MACK

    Excellent review. I enjoyed this production although Mr. Fabulous strikes me as just so gosh-darn earnest. He’s a wonderful singer but I don’t feel the heat. Martinez just lacks that last little bit of glamour. She’s a tremendous performer and very underrated I think. I wish this production were stronger and you’re right, Porgy, it just doesn’t make a convert out of me like I was hoping.

  • PATRICK MACK

    …and kudos to La Cieca for another killer headline.

    • Porgy Amor

      La Cieca’s headlines are brilliant, but sometimes the titles I submit are let stand, which was the case this time. I always consider it a compliment.

      • PATRICK MACK

        I bow low.

        • Darrell Standing

          I’ll bet you do ????

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Nice review, and if I understand the meaning of your allusion to church services, I agree that this opera performance sounds just as boring.

    • Porgy Amor

      Ha ha. I don’t know if I’d go as far as to call it boring, but what I meant was that everyone was going through the rituals in a dutiful way, rather than gettin’ the spirit in the dark, or whatever.

  • Porgy Amor

    The Spanish conductor who does nice work here was also the conductor of the Lucia that Henson reviewed on Tuesday, where he was also said to be good. It’s Enrique Mazzola week at Parterre!

    “Enrique Mazzola is not just one of opera’s most celebrated conductors, but perhaps its most dedicated musicologist. A consummate scholar, his one and only role when he stands at the lectern is to breathe so much life into the score’s main themes that audiences lose themselves in his unforgettable performances. That is the passion of Enrique Mazzola.”

    • Krunoslav

      Careful there, a deputation of Flemings may intrude on your next auto-da-fé!

  • simonelvladtepes

    An honest (and detailed) review like this is very welcome.

  • grimoaldo2

    ” If there were some way to persuade a neutral listener in 2016 that Poliuto is an overlooked masterpiece …I cannot say that that happened.”
    The neutral listener could try this amazing performance from La Scala with the mind blowing cast of Callas, Corelli,Ettore Bastianini and Nicola Zaccaria:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H33uVH2Bc28
    Donizetti revised “Poliuto” into a French grand opera, Les Martyrs. and here is an astonishing performance of that with the greatest Leyla Gencer and Renato Bruson
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZS88aR2aXH4
    I do think both versions are great operas and am slightly disappointed to see the rather lukewarm reaction Porgy had to this performance with Fabiano and Martinez, both of whom I enjoyed so much in the SF Don Carlos (they are doing “Faust” together in Houston next month). But I will have to get this DVD and see for myself.

    • Cicciabella

      More recently, Opera Rara’s recording of Les Martyrs with Spyres and El-Khoury, conducted by Mark Elder, is first-class.

  • Another well-written, well-reasoned review from Porgy. Thank you!!