Thursday 7 May 2015

Les Martyrs - the richness of French grand opera restored.

Donizetti - Les Martyrs
Donizetti Les Martyrs; Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder; Opera Rara
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 29 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Fine new recording of Donizetti's lost French grand opera in all its splendour and richness

This new set from Opera Rara is the recording of Donizetti's opera Les Martyrs written originally for the Paris Opera in 1840, and which Opera Rara revealed in concert form in November 2014 (see my review). The opera is given in a new critical edition by Dr. Flora Willson which restores the work's original form including passages which had not been heard before the work's 2014 performance. Opera Rara give it complete, so we not only get the fullest text of the opera possible, but all the ballet music too. In five acts, running to three discs lasting over three hours and coming complete with a thick booklet (almost a book) which gives full background and texts for the work.

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Opera Rara Chorus and soloists Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley and Wynne Evans. And what an array of people (I attended one of the rehearsals and can testify to the numbers), the Paris Opera certainly did not do things by halves, there is an orchestra of 80, plus eight off-stage musicians, and choir of 47. This is a chance to experience the full glory of opera in the grand French manner.

Of course, the work is not quite French; Donizetti did not write it especially for the Paris Opera he started out with Poliuto which was a shorter more compact piece written for Naples. Though, it has to be added, that Donizetti in his later Italian career seems to have always had half an eye on Paris which was one of the major operatic centres. The plot of the piece, with its concluding scenes of martyrdom was just too much for the authoritarian regime in Naples and the King forbade the work, despite some good effort from the Italian librettist to make the piece more about Poliuto's jealousy than Christian martyrdom.

Once in Paris, Donizetti took the piece apart and re-assembled it in five acts with a ballet and a new libretto by Eugene Scribe. This means that it is an opera which fascinatingly moves between French and Italian forms so that, for example, Severe has a very Italian caballetta embedded in the very French grand choral finale to Act two.

Set in Roman Armenia, the opera opens with the baptism into Christianity of the general Polyeucte (Michael Spyres). But Christians are proscribed, and Polyeucte is married to Pauline (Joyce El-Khoury) who is daughter of the governor Felix (Brindley Sherratt). Felix is introducing new laws threatening execution on anyone who gets baptised. The resulting struggle between pagan and Christian, public duty and private belief, is exacerbated by the fact the the new proconsul come to prosecute the new anti-Christian laws is Severe (David Kempster) whom Pauline once loved (and still does) but though was dead on the battle field.

The plot provides plenty of the ceremonial opportunities necessary in French Grand Opera, processions in the dark in catacombs, a Roman triumph, pagan ceremonies and the final throwing of the Christians to the lions in the arena. The work is not the masterpieces that Rossini's Guillaume Tell and Verdi's Don Carlos are, but it contains much that is rich and rewarding.

The role of Polyeucte requires a tenor who can sustain the heroic tone over the length of the opera, but also can provide brilliance and flexibility. Michael Spyres has some considerable experience in this repertoire, as he showed with his performances last year with ENO of Benvenuto Cellini (see my review), Berlioz's flawed but brilliant work which was aimed firmly at the Paris Opera two years before the premiere of Les Martyrs. Michael Spyres sings with burnished tone, giving us fine nobility of phrasing and some finely flexible decorative passages. In the relative calm (!) of the recording studio, he was also able to turn out some really fine top notes, showing an upward extension which has an admirable combination of brilliance and freedom.  Dramatically he brings strong commitment to the role, making it believable and certainly a lot more than just a string of arias and ensembles.

With Pauline a very different voice is required, as the role varies between dramatic declamation and ravishingly elaborated coloratura; it seems Pauline's response is stress was to break out in roulades. Joyce El-Khoury not only sang these beautifully, but used her lovely smoky voice to give dramatic weight to Pauline's more vehement moments. She sings with a pleasantly warm vibrato, which takes her out of the direct line of French coloratura sopranos (the original Pauline created Berlioz's Teresa and Eudoxie in Halevy's La Juive). Instead Joyce El-Khoury brings flexibility, intimate warmth and dramatic commitment to the role as well as technical poise to create a highly sympathetic and ravishing performance.

None of the other roles are quite as substantial, though David Kempster as Severe gets some brilliant moments, including the cavatina and caballetta that are part of the act two finale, and elsewhere he brings finesse and sympathy to the role. It requires the sort of high flexible baritone singing that went out when Verdi introduced his heavier, darker baritone roles and David Kempster shows himself more than equal to this style of singing with an admirable combination of power and finesse.

Brindley Sherratt thunders magnificently as the governor Felix, but this is not a one-sided performance and Sherratt shows the character's sympathetic side in his interchanges with his daughter. On the other hand, all Clive Bayley's character of Callisthenes seems to do is thunder and he does so magnificently too. Wynne Evans is Nearque, Polyeucte's Christian friend, the second tenor role who is required to hang around and sing duets with the lead tenor and generally start things off before the lead tenor gets the fireworks. Wynne Evans sings with some style with a real feeling of commitment as the Christian withstands the threats of torture.

The Paris Opera required operas to make good use of the chorus and there are plenty of opportunities here for the excellent Opera Rara Chorus, which makes up both Christians and pagans. They sing with energy and verve, giving us some lovely detail. Chorus members Rosalind Waters, Andrew Friendhoff and Simon Preece all provide strong support in small solo moments.

This is a long and unfamiliar score and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment enable us to hear it in all the fascinating detail of an early 19th century score played on original instruments with the huge sweep of the strings (without excessive vibrato) balanced by the woodwind including four bassoons for added richness (the beginning of the overture makes wonderful use of these) and four horns, not to mention the on-stage brass of nine. I am not saying that Mark Elder would not have balanced things with a modern orchestra, he is too fine a musician for that, but the disc enables us to really appreciated the detail of Donizetti's writing which Mark Elder and his musicians bring out.

Sir Mark Elder seems to be working his way through Donizetti's late grand French scores with Opera Rara (Le Duc d'Albe comes next) and you sense that this is a labour of love. He clearly loves and understands this music so that what could be a rather sprawling mess, takes on a fascinatingly shapely form.

The CD booklet includes articles by Dr Flora Willson and Jonathan Keates as well as copious illustrations of early performers. Was the first Polyeucte, Gilbert Duprez, really as slim as that? It seems amazing that he could have made such an heroic sound in such a slim frame. And Eugene Scribe looks more like a civil servant than librettist of some of the most influential operas of the era!

Whilst I listened to every inch of these disc, and will do so again with great pleasure I suspect that in future I may skip the ballet music. Without dance or decors, Donizetti's music can seem a bit thin here but it is important that we are able to experience the whole

Don't get me wrong, Les Martyrs isn't a lost masterpiece, but it is the mature Donizetti's response to the challenge of writing French Grand Opera, a transitional work and written on a lavish scale.

Gaetano Donizetti () - Les Martyrs (1840) [188.22]
Pauline - Joyce E-Khoury
Polyeuct - Michael Spyres
Severe - David Kempster
Felix - Brindley Sherratt
Callisthenes - Clive Bayley
Nearque - Wynne Evans
Un Chretien - Simon Preece
Une Femme - Rosalind Waters
Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
Recorded at St Clement's Church, London, October/November 2014
OPERA RARA ORC52 3 CD's [77.21, 74.01, 36.50]
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