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?