Sunday, 31 May 2015

Love-death business again (Poliuto/Glyndebourne)

Donizetti, Poliuto (Mazzola cond. LPO, Glyndebourne Festival)
J.L. Gérome, Last prayers of the Christina martyrs (1875-85) (Public domain)
On the way to Lewes, a sub-tropical storm did not bode well for picnicking. Was this biblical weather? Was Apollo irked that we were going to see martyrdom as entertainment? But the rain stopped, the sun shone and it became a lovely early summer’s afternoon. Sitting in the gardens at the end it was almost balmy. At the back of my mind was the worry that the story might be rather too thinly-spread over the music as it had been with Il Furioso (ETO - review).
The production was driven by the music: the LPO under Enrique Mazzola showed off what long rehearsal periods for a great orchestra can do, bringing the music to life in a way it wasn’t in the scratchy Callas recording or the Jan Latham-Loenig/Rome recoding from the 1980s. Or indeed to the DVD from the Donizetti festival in the 1990s. The score, unfamiliar to most, is wonderful. Three fine overtures and wonderful arias make this an important contribution to the bel canto canon. The playing was at its most wonderful at the beginning of the final act, with some wonderful descending solos. 
The plot revolves around a love triangle. Paolina (Ana María Martínez) was married to Severo (Igor Golovatenko) but fell in love with Poliuto (Michael Fabiano) after she believed Severo had died in battle. As a convert to the proscribed Christianity, Poliuto is at risk of prison. Poliuto refuses to renounce his faith; Paolina follows him to his fate (death) out of love. Much like the end of Andrea Chenier, they walk off to die (ROH -review). Instead of seeing lions, Severo, Poliuto and Paolina walk to the rear of the stage: Severo disappears into the shadow of one block, and the two martyrs appear in a blaze of heavenly light. It is that love-death thing again.
Glyndebourne has assembled a first-rate cast for this, and the triangle is superb. Fabiano, so thrilling in La Traviata last summer has returned with a power which is scarcely imaginable (review). All this gives an urgency and suffering to his tone. Martínez is wonderful too – her careful tender notes show her torment against Golovatenko’s rumbling, roaring bass. This is really superb singing, and the chorus is on great form again this year.
Mariame Clément’s production has taken a lot of stick. The critics didn’t like the grey plinths or the period. It was that sometime-twentieth-century-authoritarian-regime look which left so many cold. Whilst this is not the most charming production you will see at Glyndebourne – not that it is a cheerful story – it worked effectively. The only moment of levity was when two Christians found themselves amongst a crowd of flag wavers, and picked up awkwardly flags and pretended to be cheering Severo. There were moments when the sheer terror of such a regime pointed to historical antecedents in the antiquity in which the opera was set. Moreover, it serves to highlight that the fear of believing something different in an intolerant society.  A period production would have been extremely wearisome, and actual lions would have been as comic as Parsifal’s swan always lands up being. The projections onto the moving grey plinths were effective generally, and in presenting light coming through the windows of prison cell, really quite impressive.  
Poliuto isn’t long- less than two hours in total.  I worried that Act III on its own would seem somewhat orphaned and unable to sustain things. It didn’t. With singing of this quality, the emotions and drama shot back up to full strength immediately. Whatever they did during the interval kept things going. No mean feat- the interval was almost as long as the opera. The fine playing and a series of great numbers - a duets and a very fine trio brought drama and emotions back to the fore and the thrilling climax with great music holding it together.
Overall: the mind boggles as to how this isn’t part of the standard repertoire. This won’t sound better anytime soon, so catch it if at all possible.
Full cast
Conductor: Enrique Mazzola
Poliuto: Michael Fabiano
Paolina: Ana María Martínez
Severo: Igor Golovatenko
Callistene: Matthew Rose
Felice: Timothy Robinson
Nearco: Emanuele D’Aguanno
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Mariame Clément
Designer: Julia Hansen
Lighting Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Video: fettFilm (Momme Hinrichs and Torge Möller)
Continues at the festival until 15th July; to be broadcast on Radio Three 22nd June at 7:30.

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