Donizetti: Les Martyrs
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A tragic tale of Christian martyrdom, Les Martyrs began its life as Poliuto, Donizetti’s Italian opera which due to its religious content was banned before its Naples premiere. Greatly angered by the Italian censors’ de cision, Donizetti moved to Paris in the hope of conquering the Opéra de Paris and securing his status as a composer of international repute.
Les Martyrs brings together Opera Rara and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for their fourth collaboration. Sir Mark Elder conducts an outstanding cast featuring Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury in the central roles. They are joined by David Kempster, Wynne Evans, Brindley Sherratt and Clive Bayley.
Picnickers at Glyndebourne may wonder if they are suffering from déjà vu. The festival opens in two weeks with Donizetti’s Poliuto, but much of the same music comes round again here in this re-working for Parisian audiences called Les Martyrs. Opera Rara has recorded the rare French version in a new critical edition and with galvanising, period-instrument playing under conductor Mark Elder.Michael Spyres sings stylishly as Polyeucte, the Christian convert in a hostile Roman Empire. Joyce El-Khoury is his silvery-toned Pauline. At the end both get thrown to the lions. Cue rousing final chorus. **** Ft, 1/5/15 /// This is the expanded French version of the opera about the early Christian martyrs revived by Glyndebourne this year as Poliuto . Additions include a new finale and a ballet, but it s the overall scale that seems grander than the original, focused less on the individual tragedy of the hero and more on the collective fate of those who die for their religion. It’s not a masterpiece, and there’s a fair amount of padding, but Donizetti’s unerring theatrical sense is evident throughout. The performance by Opera Rara is excellent. Mark Elder is one of the great champions of this composer’s music, and he and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment interpret it with a blazing conviction that rises to the classically majestic. Joyce El-Khoury and David Kempster give equally committed performances as a conflicted wife and her lover, but the outstanding contribution comes from Michael Spyres, singing with virtuosic bravado as the heroic convert. **** –Telegraph, 04/07/15
This an opera set entirely out of the ordinary. The way it communicates unfaltering commitment from first to last, alike in the finely moulded choral singing and the keenly colourful orchestral delivery. Tremendous . DISC OF THE MONTH. Opera, Jun’15 /// Mark Elder elicits from his musicians a reading of great intensity. Performance **** Recording ***** BBC MUSIC OPERA CHOICE –BBC Music Magazine, July’15
Here Opera Rara has restored Les Martyrs to its original splendour, mark Elder conducting the new critical edition of the score in full, with his love of the music shining through in every bar. Indeed, the conducting and playing are arguably the recordings greatest glory. The OAE’s sound is wonderfully sparkly and transparent, everything beautifully balanced. GRAMOPHONE EDITORS CHOICE. Gramophone,June’15 /// While Glyndebourne’s Poliuto (a work Donizetti drew from Corneille’s spiritual drama Polyeucte) is busy sacrificing its faithful Christians on a daily basis, here’s the souped-up version the composer later prepared for the Paris Opera. It saw the Italian composer go with the flow of Gallic taste by expanding his modest original to epic proportions with elaborate choruses, a mandatory (in French grand opera, at least) dance sequence and a brand-new title. Les Martyrs contains passages for vast forces that might have come from the pen of Berlioz, himself a withering critic of Donizetti despite their shared musical language. Yet the result is never raucous: the mellow timbre of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s period brass and woodwind and Mark Elder’s beautifully pointed conducting ensure that colours in this ravishing complete recording (three hours, three CDs) stay subtle and eloquent, even when the going gets histrionic. Essentially a love triangle where lions eat the winners, Les Martyrs is a tale of Romans versus Christians in which the good guys are tenors, the bad guys growling basses and the spurned lover a baritone (David Kempster). But master librettist Eugène Scribe lends compassion to all his protagonists, not least Brindley Sherratt’s Félix, governor of Armenia, whose daughter Pauline fabulously sung here by Joyce El-Khoury espouses Christianity and dies along with Michael Spyres’s unwavering Polyeucte. In such a powerful score it’s unfortunate that Pauline’s last-minute conversion is so cheaply won, and that Donizetti’s glimpse of heaven turns out to be a pre-Disney land of harps and soaring tessitura. Happily, though, the devilish Romans have a good share of the best tunes in an opera that s loaded with melodic jewels. Even on first hearing, Les Martyrs sounds like a familiar friend thanks to the regular thematic reprises that pepper Donizetti s score. ***** Sinfini Music, 12/6/15 /// Critics’ Choice –Gramophone, Dec’15