Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics. It makes a powerful case for the opera, and also for Glyndebourne's artistic vision. Poliuto isn't standard repertoire - it's nothing like L'elisir d'amore - but this brilliant production and performances show what a powerful work it is. Political repression, religious intolerance and persecution are all too relevant today. Poliuto packs an emotional punch. We should heed its message
Donizetti's source material was a play by Corneille, written two centuries previously. Polyeucte (Poliuto) was a nobleman in an outpost of the Roman Empire. The opera begins with brooding, murky music with a hushed but fervent chorus. Christians are meeting in secret. Three hundred years after the death of Christ, being a Christian was dangerous. Most early Christians were poor, an underclass inspired by the doctrine of heavenly rewards for earthly suffering. In a militaristic state like Rome, the idea that the meek might inherit the earth would have seemed dangerously subversive, tantamount to overthrowing the basic values of social order. Towering columns of what appear to be rough-hewn stone overwhelm the figures below, at once a depiction of the harsh conditions Christians faced, yet also the strength of their faith.
The opera begins with murky music suggesting shadows, and a hushed but fervent chorus. Into this darkness Poliuto (Michael Fabiano) appears. He's a nobleman, an outsider. Is he a spy? His friend, Nearco (Emanuele D’Aguanno), is a convert. and Poliuto wants to find out why this strange new faith holds such allure. Poliuto's troubled because he knows that his wife Paolina (Ana María Martínez) is still in love with Severo ( Igor Golovatenko), who she thought had died. Since Severo is now a Proconsul, with authority direct from Rome, this love triangle has toxic political complications. Severo's costume suggests Mussolini, who defined Fascism. His guards resemble Mussolini's secret police. With a wry tough sense of humour, director Mariame Clément has them smoking cigarettes.
Enrique Mazzola, a bel canto specialist, conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Last November, Mark Elder conducted Les Martyrs, the French version of Poluito which Donizetti created for Paris when Poliuto was banned in Naples. The LPO aren't a period instrument orchestra like the Age of Enlightenment for Opera Rara, but Mazzola used that to advantage, creating an almost Verdian richness of colour from the relatively small forces of a Donizetti orchestra. Mazzola seems to inspire great enthusiasm from his players. Hopefully, we'll hear much more of him at Glyndebourne (and in London) in the future.
Severo and Paolina snatch a few moments together. Martínez executed Paolina's arias with such beauty that her voice seemed to shimmer. Good casting, since divine light seems to permeate this opera, despite the gruesome nature of the narrative. Donizetti gilds the vocal line with almost minimalist grace - delicately plucked strings, a single low flute, and the sound of the harp. For a moment, an image of a flowering tree is projected on the walls behind her Martínez's voice blossoms with warmth that's all too soon extinguished. When she and Golovatenko sing together, they're singing love duets tinged with frustration and regret. Paolina, though, is a paragon of virtue, a concept both Roman and Christian.
This review appears also in Opera Today