Wednesday 29 October 2014

Les Martyrs is coming

Gilbert Duprez, the first Polyeucte in Donizetti's Les Martyrs
Gilbert Duprez, the first Polyeucte in
Donizetti's Les Martyrs
Yesterday I had the joy of being about to attend one of Opera Rara's recording sessions for their latest recording, Donizetti's Les Martyrs. I heard Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley and Wynne Evans, with the Opera Rara Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Mark Elder recording the finale to act two of Donizetti's Les Martyrs. The session I attended was the sixth of sixteen and this is a large scale, very grand opera with significant forces. It was heartening to be able to experience it in studio conditions, something which is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. And it was illuminating to hear such detailed work being done on a work with which I was completely unfamiliar.

Luckily we don't have to wait for the recording to hear the opera as the same forces are giving a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday, 4 November 2014, further information from the South Bank Centre website.

Donizetti's opera Les Martyrs has its origins in his opera Poliuto which was written for Naples to be performed in 1838. The libretto was written by Salvadore Cammarano based on Pierre Corneille's play Polyeucte written in 1641–42, the story of which reflected the life of the early Christian martyr Saint Polyeuctus. The opera ends with Polyeucte/Poliuto and his wife being killed as Christians by the Romans. Cammarano was at pains to play down the Christian martyrdom aspect of the plot, and introduced a sub-plot whereby Poliuto is jealous of his wife's previous relationship. This didn't work and the King of Naples banned the performances. A furious Donizetti, left Naples to take up a contract at the Paris Opera, taking Poliuto with him.

Like one or two other of Donizetti's later Italian operas, Poliuto was written with half an eye to possible re-writing for the French operatic stage. In its French incarnation it was to have a libretto by Eugene Scribe and would be known as Les Martyrs. At Donizetti's instigation, Scribe made the text closer to the original play so there is now no sub-plot involving Polyeucte's jealously. The work was expanded from three to four acts, the requisite ballets were added, but Donizetti was able to keep around 80% of the original musical material, albeit sometimes in transformed form. The result is a work which fascinatingly combines French and Italian styles, and it was heartily disliked by Berlioz who disliked the works of the Italian composers invading France.

The leading tenor role of Polyeucte was tailored to the talents of Gilbert Duprez, who was the instigator of the Ut de poitrine, singing the tenor top C from the chest. Rather ironically the role of Poliuto in Naples was to have been sung by Adolphe Nourrit, the tenor whose career in Paris had been blighted by Duprez's rise.

It is a large grand work and for the concert performance we will not be getting the ballet music. But we will be hearing some of the material that Donizetti cut before the first performance which is in an appendix in the modern critical edition. Material which Mark Elder feels is important to the clarification of the plot.

Opera Rara's plans for 2015 continue with late Donizetti when they will be recording his 1839 opera Le Duc D'Albe. This was intended for the Paris Opera, but after Donizetti had completed two acts the project was cancelled because the soprano (the mistress of the theatre director) took a dislike to her role. Mark Elder will be conducting his own orchestra the Halle in a recording with soloists Laurent Naouri, Angela Meade and Ramon Vargas. Opera Rara will also be recording Gounod's early opera La Colombe (which was performed at the Buxton Festival in 2013, see my review) with Mark Elder conducting Laurent Naouri, Michele Losier and the Halle. Then later in the year, it is the turn of Leoncavallo's Zaza which will see Ermonel Jaho in the title role with Maurizio Benini and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This latter will receive a concert performance at the Barbican on 27 November 2015.

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