Was Glyndebourne right to revive Donizetti's Poliuto? No, says Michael Tanner

Plus: David McVicar's Glyndebourne Carmen faces off against Calixto Bieito's at ENO - and a clear winner emerges

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

Poliuto; Carmen

Glyndebourne, in rep until 15 July


ENO, in rep until 3 July

It’s been a busy operatic week, with a nearly great concert performance of Parsifal in Birmingham on Sunday (reviewed by Anna Picard in last week’s Spectator), Carmen at the Coliseum on Wednesday, Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne on Thursday and Carmen, also at Glyndebourne, on Saturday. A trajectory that Nietzsche would have approved of, moving from brooding northern transfiguration to sunlit, brilliant southern violence and destruction.

Poliuto is mostly known, if at all, in the live recording made at La Scala in 1960 as a vehicle for Callas’s return, in a role that made comparatively small demands on her, and much larger ones on Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. That recording reveals the work to be mainly run-of-the-mill, requiring and, up to a point, rewarding artists of that stature. Donizetti made a French version of the piece, called Les Martyrs, which is coming in for a good deal of respectful critical attention at present, thanks to Opera Rara’s performance of it at the Royal Festival Hall last year and its recent release on three long CDs. The Italian original, as sung at Glyndebourne, lacks some items that were back-translated from the French, and is a compact work — one of those Glyndebourne evenings when, after a 90-minute food interval, you return to the theatre for slightly less than 30 minutes, as in the old days when Glyndebourne still performed operas by Janacek.

Is Poliuto worth reviving? In the present relativistic critical climate, the answer will be a simple Yes. That seems to me to diminish Donizetti’s status as a composer of two works of comic genius, and several that are at least the equal of Verdi’s works up until his middle period. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the composer of 65 operas, who died at the age of 50 after several years of tertiary syphilis, should have produced some mediocre works, and can anyone seriously claim that Poliuto is more than that? The Glyndebourne production doesn’t contain any sensational singers, though all of them are excellent or almost excellent. The subject is Christian martyrdom, always a welcome topic, and the conclusion has Poliuto and his wife Paolina entering the arena to be eaten by lions.

The production, by Mariame Clément, is defiantly unhelpful, while the monochrome sets by Julia Hansen, vast marble slabs, are depressing. The period of the action seems to be Mussolini’s dictatorship, which makes the lions (they don’t appear) more surprising. Poliuto is taken by Michael Fabiano, who is clearly influenced by Franco Corelli in never singing under forte, but not otherwise. The Proconsul Severo, previously affianced to Paolina, is the superb and sympathetic Igor Golovatenko, with a warm, full voice; the same is true of the villainous Callistene, High Priest of Jupiter, grandly taken by Matthew Rose. Paolina is the lovely Ana María Martínez, worthy of a more demanding role. The conductor Enrique Mazzola moves the piece along: there’s not much else he can do.

From Mussolini to Franco: Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen, which has travelled the world, is revived for the first time at the Coliseum, and makes no less dismal an impression than it did first time round. Richard Armstrong set a cracking pace for the Prelude, but it was bottom-lite, and so it remained. The point about Carmen, surely, and what made Nietzsche admire it so intensely, is that it deals lightly with the darkest forces in human nature. Armstrong’s conducting failed to reveal them in the texture of the music, while Bieito’s production fails, utterly, to see anything but them, unless the appearance of a male dancer in the ravishing Act III entr’acte, who strips and postures in the nude, is meant as light relief. The opening chorus, apparently a jolly affair, is undermined by Bieito by having a soldier in fatigues tirelessly running round the squadron in his tighty-whities and holding a rifle, until he collapses. The action takes place in Stygian gloom, needless to say, with blinding car lights intimidating the audience from time to time. I had high hopes of Justina Gringyte in the title role, but she was — presumably at Bieito’s behest — as unsexy as she could manage, with a very flat-falling habanera. The beefy Eric Cutler (Don José)gave a fine, noble account of the Flower Song, with a wonderful hushed piano at the close, but once again, he never seemed like a man in torment. Dialogue is cut to the bone, so we have no sense of the characters as having a past or any context. There are parts of Carmen that can’t fail to move one, but there should be so much more, and there wasn’t.

Glyndebourne, in its revival of David McVicar’s 2002 production of Carmen, gave us everything. Never, surely, can this ultimate war horse among operas have received treatment so fresh and yet so loyal to its spirit, and with a perfect cast and ideal conducting from Jakub Hrusa, this amounted to one of the absolute peaks of my opera-going life. There is a sensational tenor, Pavel Cernoch, whose looks equal those of the mobbed Jonas Kaufmann, and whose voice and acting are at least as fine, embodying Don José with extraordinary completeness, so that the opera really becomes, as it should, the depiction of his collapse under the forces that Carmen unleashes in him. Not that that is surprising, given the intensity of Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s portrayal of the title role. What is wonderful about McVicar’s production is the thoroughness with which he delineates each character, while going in for no crude underlinings or gimmickry. I wish some more ‘interventionist’ directors would take lessons from him.

This production has very full dialogue, and, when naturally spoken, it demonstrates how much that can add. Without knowledge of José’s complicated past we are in no position either to understand his actions or to develop complex feelings about them. There is so much of this glorious opera that is implicit, so much that, alternating with the glamour and spectacle, is a passing quiet moment where any other composer would have wallowed. Think of how the tremendous celebrations in the procession of the toreadors in the last act suddenly fade away, and Carmen and Escamillo have their tiny but overwhelming moment of intimacy. There are so many things like that, and yet how rarely one notices them. When, as in this wonderful production, none of them is missed, the result is stunning. I’m sure this is already a sell-out, but it is a necessary experience for any opera lover.

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  • Marco Marcoarco

    I totally disagree with your article. Poliuto is a very interesting opera, although very difficult to put on stage. Should we still judge operas after 200 years? These are “stones” now, part of our culture. Donizetti was a pure genius, in all fileds, serious, semi-serious and comic opera. There is no reason to mention the fact that he wrote so many operas! This was normal for that time. We all know Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, Mozart 41 and Beethoven 9, but this doesn’t mean that Haydn isn’t an important composer. How can you mention the syphilis as something important in this picture! How can you write that Paolina is a role that demands less to the soprano? Have you seen the score?
    Sorry, I completely disagree with you.

  • James Thorne

    I certainly think that Poliuto was much better than the critics allowed. I didn’t find the updating to a non-specific 30’s fascist state too grating, and the 3 lead singers were really, really excellent, with Anne Marie Martinez the best. If Michael Fabiano can bring a bit more colour and timbre to his voice – not so loud so much of the time! – he will be a stand out tenor of his generation.

    But this post is mainly to say that your review of the Glyndebourne Carmen actually encouraged me to go, which I had not thought of doing. And all you said about it was true. It is not to be missed. Thank you for that.