GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Les Martyrs—Joyce El-Khoury (Pauline), Michael Spyres (Polyeucte), David Kempster (Sévère), Brindley Sherratt (Félix), Clive Bayley (Callisthènes), Wynne Evans (Néarque), Simon Preece (un Chrétien), Rosalind Waters (une femme); Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded in St Clement’s Church, London, UK, during October and November 2014; Opera Rara ORC52; 3 CDs, 188:12; Available from Opera Rara, harmonia mundi USA, and major music retailers]
Few events are as exciting to the opera lover as the release of a new recording by Opera Rara. For the past four decades, Opera Rara's efforts have unearthed scores buried beneath generations of dismissal and neglect and revealed their finest qualities via performances and recordings featuring world-class casts, orchestras, and conductors. These efforts have in many cases reshaped modern notions of composers and their music, as well as having expanded the woefully inadequate discographies of important singers and bel canto exponents such as Annick Massis, Nelly Miricioiu, Bruce Ford, and Colin Lee. The enduring popularity of Lucia di Lammermoor, L'elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, and La fille du régiment has kept the music of Gaetano Donizetti playing in opera houses large and small for nearly two hundred years, but even with milestones like a Glyndebourne production of Poliuto and the Metropolitan Opera première of Roberto Devereux achieved or planned there are significant products of Donizetti’s creativity that remain in the shadows. Opera Rara’s specialty is shining the lights of rediscovery and rejuvenation upon the hidden works of Nineteenth-Century masters of bel canto, and these lights have never shone more brightly than in this studio recording of Donizetti’s 1840 leviathan Les Martyrs. Many of recent years’ well-intentioned forays into ignored music have ultimately revealed that there are more instances than it seems fashionable to admit in which neglect is not unjustifiable, but the performance of Les Martyrs on these discs is a case of a superb score receiving long-overdue recognition from artists capable of doing it justice. Like most of the grands opéras of the Nineteenth Century, the extravagant musical demands of Les Martyrs render the opera unlikely to claim a permanent place in the international repertory, but this recording confirms the impression made by Opera Rara’s concert performance of the opera in Royal Festival Hall in November 2014: if today’s listeners regard Les Martyrs primarily as a curiosity, it is a score that richly rewards inquisitiveness. Hearing the opera performed as it is on these discs causes one to shake one’s head and wonder why Les Martyrs is only now being returned to life, but singing of the quality that is preserved on these discs is worth any expenditure of patience.
Premièred at the famed Opéra in Paris in April 1840, Les Martyrs was the product of a turbulent genesis. Under contract to provide a new opera for the 1838 Season at the Neapolitan Teatro di San Carlo, Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, turned to Pierre Corneille’s Seventeenth-Century epic Polyeucte, which they adapted in Italian as Poliuto. Mere days before the opera’s scheduled opening, the opera fell victim to the censorship of the court of Ferdinando II, King of the Two Sicilies, and was withdrawn by the incensed composer, who declined to substitute another new score and begrudgingly paid the fine for breaking the San Carlo contract. When a commission for two new operas was offered by the Opéra in Paris, the composer recognized an opportunity to revisit his music for Poliuto, which he esteemed very highly. With Grand Opéra librettist par excellence Eugène Scribe taking Cammarano’s libretto and Corneille’s text in hand, Poliuto was reborn as Les Martyrs, a score of proportions adhering to Parisian standards. The obligatory ballet was inserted, and Donizetti repurposed the lion’s share—an apt designation considering the opera’s ending—of his music for Poliuto in the score of Les Martyrs. Introduced to the Parisian audience by an accomplished cast including Julie Dorus-Gras, Halévy’s first Eudoxie in La Juive and the creator of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, as Pauline and the celebrated Gilbert Duprez as Polyeucte, Les Martyrs was a considerable success. Like Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Les Martyrs was subjected to cuts by the composer even before the first night. For this recording, Opera Rara made use of a new critical edition of the opera by Dr. Flora Willson in which many of those cut passages are reinstated. The resulting score is one of dramatic tautness that belies its hulking pomposity. Like Aida and Don Carlos, Les Martyrs is an incredibly intimate piece despite its large scale. Musicologists have long suggested that this score contains some of Donizetti’s most finely-crafted and perceptibly personal music. Hearing the opera performed as it is on this recording, who could disagree?
Much of the praise for the sweep and serenity of this performance is garnered by Sir Mark Elder, who again confirms that no conductor in the world today has a surer grasp on idiomatic pacing of bel canto repertory than his own. Responding to his propulsive but cool-headed tempi, the musicians of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play superlatively, giving an account of the opera’s innovative Overture that boils with contrasting eloquence and tension. The dances in Act Two—‘Lutte des gladiateurs,' 'Pas de deux,' and 'Danse militaire'—are executed with Gallic charm that rubs shoulders with Donizetti’s innate Italian fervor. Throughout the performance, conductor and instrumentalists rise to every challenge of Donizetti’s score, providing a musical setting for a traversal of Les Martyrs that transcends the limitations of a studio run-through. Directed by chorus master Stephen Harris, the fine voices of the Opera Rara Chorus are effective in every guise in which they appear in the course of the drama, beginning with a beautifully-shaped chorus of Christians in the Overture, 'O Dieu tutélaire.' Both 'Amis...silence...Du silence' and the maiden's chorus, 'Jeune souveraine,' in Act One are strongly sung, and the monumental triumphal chorus in Act Two, 'Gloire à vous, Mars et Bellonne,' is delivered with an abundance of gusto. 'Dieu du tonnerre, ton front sévère' in Act Three is appropriately ardent. Conductor, orchestra, and chorus all collaborate not in accompanying but in creating a performance of Les Martyrs in which their contributions are no less important than those of the principal singers.
In the small rôles of un Chrétien and une Femme, baritone Simon Preece and soprano Rosalind Waters sing capably, both possessing voices that promise future success in lead rôles. Welsh tenor Wynne Evans is a confident, athletic-voiced Néarque who takes advantage of every opportunity offered to him in his Act One duet with Polyeucte, singing ‘Arrêtons-nous, Polyeucte, et dans l'instant suprême’ with supple line and vivid characterization. Likewise, Manchester-born bass Clive Bayley seizes every moment that Donizetti allows him as the obdurate priest of Jupiter Callisthènes, his sinewy, Stygian-hued voice lending the character a frightening element of zealotry. Occasionally slightly unsteady, his singing never lacks impact, and the brutal impetus of his pronouncements is enjoyably potent.
As Félix, the governor of Armenia and Pauline’s father, bass Brindley Sherratt, a native of Lancashire, credibly portrays a man torn between commitment to his gubernatorial authority and love for his daughter, who married Polyeucte at his bidding despite her enduring love for the missing and presumed dead Sévère. In Félix’s Act Two aria 'Dieux des Romains, dieux de nos pères,' Sherratt uses his fibrous, gravelly voice with great intelligence, revealing the depths of his artistry with his attentiveness to nuances of text. A few moments of discomfort at range extremes are put to telling dramatic use, and the wide vibrato of his capacious voice rarely impedes the accuracy of his pitch. His singing in the Act Four trio with Pauline and Sévère is superb, the aggrieved father’s plight limned with gripping immediacy in ‘Qui défend la victime approuve son erreur’ and ‘Leur voix immortelle réchauffe mon zèle.’ Dramatically, Félix has much in common with Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, but Donizetti was more musically generous. Sherratt gives the rôle dignity and, in the opera’s final scene, unexpected piteousness, qualities kindled by his sonorous singing of Félix’s music.
The imperial proconsul Sévère receives from Welsh baritone David Kempster a performance defined by complementary muscle and musicality. Thought to have been lost to battlefield misadventure, Sévère returns to Roman-occupied Armenia as the representative of the Emperor, finding his beloved Pauline married to Polyeucte, a clandestine new convert to Christianity. In Sévère’s Act Two Romance, ‘Amour de mon jeune âge,’ the baritone conveys the tenderness from which the character’s ferocity arises, tracing the bel canto line of the music with assurance, only a handful of struggles with intonation marring his estimable intentions. Kempster sings ‘En touchant à ce rivage' in the Act Three duet with Pauline, one of the finest numbers in the score, with focused, attractive tone, and his Sévère interacts with Pauline with a believable blend of exasperated indignation and still-pervasive affection. In the Act Four trio with Pauline and Félix, his exclamations of ‘Arrachons la victime a leur juste fureur!’ and ‘A tes lois rebelle ce glaive fidèle combattra pour elle en face des dieux!’ throb with the ambiguity of a man whose duty commands him to acts that conflict with the desires of his heart. Like Camoëns in the 1843 Dom Sébastien, also a setting of a libretto by Scribe, Sévère clearly stoked Donizetti’s imagination, inspiring the composer’s most profound sympathy: the music that he wrote for the rôle is not unworthy of comparison with Verdi’s music for Macbeth, Don Carlo in Ernani, or even Rigoletto, and Kempster’s performance, rough patches and all, is worthy of the music.
Simply put, the performance of American tenor Michael Spyres as Polyeucte is a marvel. His voice is difficult to classify except as an instrument of virtually boundless aptitude. In this performance of Les Martyrs, the voice is ideal for a rôle created by Gilbert Duprez, the tenor celebrated for his espousal of the do di petto and creations of several of Donizetti’s finest tenor parts, including Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (for whom, as is often overlooked, the composer included a stratospheric top E♭ in the Act One duet with Lucia, ‘Verrano a te, sull’aure’). In Act One, Spyres delivers a rugged ‘Que l'onde salutaire,’ the voice glowing with a golden sheen. ‘Dieu puissant qui voit mon zèle’ in the Act Two finale finds him on roof-raising form, his singing taking on increasingly heroic dimensions as the character’s fortunes become ever more imperiled. Spyres’s performance reaches its zenith in Polyeucte’s scene in Act Three, beginning with a composed account of the aria ‘Mon seul trésor, mon bien suprême’ in which the emotional temperature gradually rises to the boiling point. The dramatic agitation explodes in the cabaletta ‘Oui, j'rai dans leurs temples,’ a cousin of Arnold’s ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and ‘Di quella pira l’orrenda foco’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore. Here, Spyres’s incendiary singing ignites the sentimental kindling of the music, and the formidably secure E5 that he unleashes thrillingly suggests the character’s—but not the singer’s—desperation. In Act Four, the tenor’s subtle voicing of ‘Rêve délicieux dont mon âme est émue’ is followed by an extraordinarily telling articulation of ‘Qu'importe ma vie sauvée ou ravie.’ Dramatically, Spyres encapsulates the essence of Polyeucte’s nature with his sweetly enraptured elocution of ‘La foi sainte brille à tes yeux!’ As portrayed by this incredibly gifted young singer, Polyeucte faces death with the steely resolve of Radamès in Aida and the soaring vocal refinement of Arturo in I puritani. Surveying the history of recorded singing from its infancy, encompassing the work of artists as masterful as Miguel Fleta and Ivan Kozlovsky, there is no finer example of bel canto tenor singing on disc than Spyres’s Polyeucte.
Singing Pauline in Les Martyrs, the captivating soprano Joyce El-Khoury again ventures into vocal territory that was the natural habitat of the late Leyla Gencer. Like Antonina in Belisario, another Gencer rôle that she recorded for Opera Rara, Pauline is no typical sighs-and-high-notes bel canto heroine. Attached before his rumored death to Sévère, Pauline is convinced by her father to take Polyeucte as her husband, whose conversion to Christianity is an affront to the pagan gods of her upbringing. The central crux of her predicament is that Sévère is not dead and eventually returns, covered in glory, as the Roman Emperor’s proconsul in Armenia. She still loves him, but Polyeucte’s determined integrity is not without its charms. Hers is a fate of questions for which there are no right answers. Why Pauline appealed to Gencer is obvious, and El-Khoury’s assumption of the rôle is even more complete. From the first bars of her Act One Prière, ‘Qu'ici ta main glacée bénisse ton enfant,’ it is apparent that the soprano is on ravishing form, the voice awesomely integrated and secure from bottom to top and the tone dark but entrancingly pure. Her voicing of ‘Mort à ces infâmes’ in Pauline’s Act Two scene with her father has the slashing forcefulness of a great Norma’s ‘I Romani a cento a cento, fian mietuti, fian distrutti,’ and the shock that emanates from her singing of ‘Sévère existe!... Un dieu sauveur, des ombres bords un dieu l'envoie!’ is heartrending. In El-Khoury’s and Kempster’s performances, Pauline and Sévère are as tempestuous a pair of troubled lovers as exist in opera, their destinies clashing in the Act Three duet ‘Souvenir cruel et tendre que sa voix vient de me rendre.’ Here and in ‘Ne vois-tu pas, qu'hélas! mon cœur succombe et cède à sa douleur!’ soprano and baritone spar with gladiatorial concentration, El-Khoury’s top notes electrifying the duet’s coda like lightning bolts. Pauline’s life hanging in the balance, El-Khoury detonates her lines in the Act Four trio with Félix and Sévère with virtuosic expressivity, her soaring ‘Oui, par la foir jurée’ matched by emotive readings of ‘O dévouement sublime!’ and ‘D'un chrétien rebelle epouse fidèle a toi j'en appelle.’ In the opera’s finale, as Pauline is transformed by faith and the example of Polyeucte’s nobility from a woman in crisis to a tragic heroine suited to the Comédie-Française of Corneille and Racine, El-Khoury employs her plaintive tones to illuminate the significance of lines such as ‘Seigneur, de vos bontés il faut que je l'obtienne!’ and ‘Pour toi, ma prière, ardente et sincère.’ The catharsis that she makes of ‘Miracle soudain...Lumière immortelle sa flamme nouvelle embrase mon sein!’ is extremely poignant: in Polyeucte’s arms she finally claims the peace of mind that has eluded her throughout the opera. El-Khoury’s technique never deserts her, however: not one passage of the music asks for more than she can give. Suggesting that any singer is Gencer’s equal is the kind of assertion that provokes hostility among aficionados, but as a dramatic portrayal El-Khoury’s Pauline is the peer of Gencer’s. As idiomatic bel canto vocalism, this performance surpasses not only Gencer’s towering efforts but also Maria Callas’s unforgettable Paolina in the famed 1960 La Scala Poliuto.
Opera lovers are a bewildering lot. We like what we like and dislike what we dislike, not always with justification that adheres to the tenets of basic logic. It seems unreasonable that audiences willing to endure, even embrace the marathon durations of Wagner’s mature operas and many of the Baroque works revived in recent years should ignore a score of the quality of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs. The past forty years have often found Opera Rara leading the conversation about unjustly-neglected gems of the operatic past. With a recording of Les Martyrs that rivals the label’s most exalted achievements, Opera Rara and some of today’s finest singers again reveal to opera lovers of what pleasures our prejudices have deprived us.
Beaming bel cantists: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline (left) and tenor Michael Spyres as Polyeucte (right) in Opera Rara’s concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at Royal Festival Hall, 4 November 2014 [Photo © by Russell Duncan]