Opera: Donizetti’s Poliuto, Glyndebourne Festival 21/05/15

by James M. Potter

Subtle it ain’t, but Donizetti’s martyrdom opera packs a punch

Initially banned for its depiction of the martyrdom of a saint, Poliuto has had to wait until the opening of Glyndebourne’s 2015 season for its UK première. Depicting the persecution of Christians in Armenia, it’s perhaps not entirely accidental that this new production falls on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide – but director Mariame Clément wisely avoids too specific a setting. It’s probably not the bel canto master’s most subtle score – each act starts slowly and builds to a forceful finale – but there are plenty of highlights, especially the concerted Act II finale. It helped that Enrique Mazzola in the pit consistently kept things interesting, leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a highly finessed and dynamic account.

Then there was the thrilling sensation of being pinned to one’s chair by the sheer full-throated power of Michael Fabiano in the title role. He was never less than very exciting to hear, bringing energy and commitment to every moment, from his grateful acceptance of baptism to his ultimate fate in the lions’ den. In this he was matched by Ana María Martínez’s Paolina, whose very different, burnished tone afforded a pleasing contrast and some gravity-defying pianissimos. The eventual happy marytdrom of the couple might play as an over-the-top version of Handel’s Theodora, but the singing was gripping throughout. In the role of the Roman general and Paolina’s former lover, Severo, Igor Golovatenko showed a baritone of power and flexibility.

All the singers committed whole-heartedly to a story which moved towards its conclusion with the same inevitability as the monolithic stone slabs on the stage. It didn’t take long before we were subjected to one of modern opera directing’s less subtle allegorical tropes in the form of the old ‘totalitarian Nazi/Maoist state persecuting a minority’. Still, whilst a lot of it played as rather heavy-handed, there was real power and a genuine sense of terror in the mob’s denunciation of the Christian Nearco – and a scene where Matthew Rose’s high priest talks of stirring up the people with religion hinted all-to-briefly at a dark conspiracy.

Indeed if the opera itself suffers it is as a result of insufficient characterisation of the more minor characters. Paolina is threatened with her father Felice’s death if she does not renounce her nascent Christianity – but the moment doesn’t really land, since we have learnt so little of their relationship. Similarly, it would have been nice to delve more deeply into the motivations of Callistene, the high priest of the ‘old gods’, especially as Rose’s brooding smoker seemed to hide so much conflict (and I would have loved him to have a cavatina or two). But all that might have called for a five-act drama and left Glyndebourne’s patrons scurrying in panic for the London train.

Finally, a word for the chorus, doing some beautifully nuanced work, often offstage. The moment early in Act I where Paolina felt her soul touched by the prayer of the Christians hiding in the cave was especially spine-tingling in its measured simplicity.