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This season has been particularly interesting for Donizetti fans in London. From Opera Rara’s Les Martyrs to Glyndebourne’s Poliuto, not to mention ETO’s performances of The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, we have seen a revival of unknown or almost forgotten operas by this workaholic Italian genius, together with some of his most famous works such as Maria Stuarda at the Royal Opera.
Donizetti stands among my favourite composers of all time. His music is never exhausting and seldom boring, his tunes easily catchy. An expert in the art of orchestration, he also had an eye for what the public wanted, namely either scandalous drama or witty comedies.
Poliuto and Les Martyrs, however, fall into a different category. They are, like previous works such as Il Diluvio Universale, ‘religious dramas’. Closer to oratorios than to opera, it is easy to understand why they have been so seldom performed in opera houses, becoming known among aficionados thanks to the effort of great stars such as Maria Callas or Leyla Gencer who are among the greatest revivalists of bel canto in the middle of the 20th century.
These two operas share a common point of origin, as roughly put one is the French adaptation of the other. Is it however fair to say that Les Martyrs is just a translation? Or perhaps Poliuto a ‘lower’ work compared with its revision?
The answer to that question might depend on your own personal taste: do you pay more attention to the libretto or to the music? This is the basis of what separates the French operatic style from the Italian. As Salieri once named an opera and that later became a catchy description of Italian opera, “prima la musica, e poi le parole” (Music first, then words). Italians would value music over words, cutting texts to fit the tune. For the French, things were different.
French opera at the time of Donizetti would necessarily include an overture, a ballet sequence and at least four different acts. None of these conditions are met in Poliuto. When Donizetti moved to Paris and was invited to compose an opera that would fit the taste of the Paris Opéra, he revised Poliuto by adding a second act to include a sequence of dances. He also wrote an Overture instead of a simple prelude and added a few scenes to the other acts that would provide a more consistent plot.
So what would you rather? Would you go for Poliuto, which is shorter, with all the tunes that matter? Or an opera that seems to make more sense, plot-wise, even if you have to put up with some more uninspired music?
No matter your taste however, Poliuto and Les Martyrs are rarities, infrequently performed or recorded. You’ve already missed Les Martyrs in performance, but missing Poliuto at Glyndebourne should be considered a cardinal sin. May Glyndebourne provide us with such gems for many, many years to come. (I will be looking forward for a future revival of Massenet’s Esclarmonde!)