Enrique Mazzola, Mariame Clément, Michael Fabiano, Ana María Martínez, Igor Golovatenko, Matthew Rose, Timothy Robinson, Emanuele D’Aguanno
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Donizetti's rarely performed Poliuto takes place in ancient times, in Armenia in 259 AD, but Mariame Clément's production establishes the context and what is at stake immediately in the first scene, without having to explain the background. In a more modern setting a group of Christians who could be any oppressed group of people are skulking around trying to hide their activities from the watchful authorities. One, scarred on his chest, shows that they are prepared to suffer for their beliefs, even to martyrdom, which would be the case if they were caught.
The setting and the tone is established in a manner that is admirably concise and direct for a work that is lean and to the point also. A few subsequent scenes build on this. Nearco, the leader of the Christian 'cult' prohibited by the law on pain of death, wields a blade and seems to initiate a baptism of blood with a new convert, Poliuto. Adding to the tension at this early stage with some typically operatic romantic complications, Poliuto confesses to Nearco that his nervousness is not entirely due to taking part in a forbidden ritual, but that he's also concerned that his wife might be unfaithful.
Although the situations are familiar and conventional, Poliuto is not the familiar Donizetti of racing rhythms and flowing bel canto melodies. The tone from the outset is more sombre, or at least played as such here, the music more closely aligned and matched to the subject with all the variety of situations that this entails. There seems to be justification for this, the conductor Enrique Mazzola bringing out the delicacy of the arrangements in the beauty of the melodic line, but also finding the dramatic undercurrents within it that connect and bring about sharp changes of tone.
It's the kind of flow that should enable Paolina, Poliuto's wife, to move away from dark suspicions about her husband's involvement with this dangerous sect to accepting the message of love they preach in the aria 'Di quai soave lagrime'. The tone switches immediately again with the news that the Roman general Severo has not been killed in battle as she believed. Severo is indeed Paolina's lover, or was previously before she married Poliuto. Her emotions then are mixed and conflicted, relief and joy that the man she once loved has not died turning quickly to concern about facing up to those feelings.
Donizetti similarly runs through the emotional gamut as it affects Severo, returning in glory to a triumphal chorus (that anticipates the one in Verdi's Aida) and then stepping outside it to consider his own feelings at this moment. The handling of these mixed and conflicted sensations is masterful, but the opera of course is devised to incorporate such a wide range of dramatic colour, one that would be developed further in the grand opéra tradition when Poliuto, after being rejected by Naples for depicting religious martyrdom on the stage, was rewritten and expanded as Les Martyrs for Paris.
It's not a bad idea then to play down the excesses of the melodrama in the staging, and Mariame Clément keeps the Glyndebourne production uncluttered and uncomplicated. Tall, stone pillars move to hide and conceal, as well as giving a sense of cold, immovable determination that could be applied to each of the conflicting forces and beliefs within the work. A few necessary props are used and there are some projections; a forest, clouds crossing over and closing down moods, even opening out to show, for example a processional cavalcade of official cars marking Severo's return.
The settings and projections are mostly well-judged, complementing the music as well as the manner in which Donizetti - in his usual fashion - tightens the screws, darkening the mood and quickening the pace. If occasionally tensions seem to be slightly released, it's only to provide enough slack to ramp them up even further, ending each of the acts with rousing finales and culminating in a position where the eventual martyrdom becomes as agonising as it is inevitable. The direction keeps all of this under control without unnecessary overemphasis, or at least thankfully with nothing that matches or surpasses having the Romans dressed in pseudo-Nazi uniforms.
That feels like something of a misstep, and I'm not sure the analogy is a helpful one, but it isn't taken much further than that. It's not that the work can't support such interpretation. The use of religion as a tool to control the masses and satisfy their bloodlust in order to further political interests is touched upon here in the libretto, but it's not developed any further than this. Despite some attempt at modernisation and universal application, the martyrdom of its adherents at the conclusion ensures that the Christian sacrificial outlook dominates and scarcely leaves room for any other interpretation. Donizetti's writing here is powerful enough that you can even hear strains of Violetta's lament 'Ah! Gran Dio! morir si giovane' from La Traviata at the conclusion. Verdi evidently learned much from this work.
The strength of Poliuto's musical and dramatic content and the force that it asserts is backed up by a strong cast of singers. Michael Fabiano - seen at Glyndebourne last year as Alfredo in La Traviata - is particularly good as Poliuto, the American demonstrating a robust tenor voice that is also capable of finer expression. Ana María Martínez is a little bit stretched on occasion by the high note demands of Paolina, but handles a challenging role well. The baritone role of Severo could probably use a little more depth and gravity, but it's sung with a lyrical character by Igor Golovatenko that emphasises the romantic nature of the role a little more. Matthew Rose however puts plenty of weight and gravity behind Callistene the High Priest to balance the range and tone of voices in the work, as does Emanuele D’Aguanno's Nearco for the tenor voice.