Sacrificial acts

Gaetano Donizetti
Glyndebourne Festival, until July 15

Georges Bizet
Until July 3

Arthur Sullivan
Until July 4
English National Opera

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, June 6

Michael Fabiano as Poliuto. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

In an age in which the greatest threat to Christianity comes, not from competing religions, but from apathetic acceptance of its basic values, it is interesting to reflect on how astonishing the beliefs of early Christians must have seemed to their sceptical contemporaries. How bizarre it must have seemed to the citizens of the Roman empire, no less than to the Vikings several centuries later, that these people chose to worship a god who allowed himself to be reviled, tortured and executed by his enemies. How profoundly different must have appeared the believers’ desire to supplant the martial and heroic modes so crucial to the extant order of society, with a world view based on an idea of self-sacrifice and universal forgiveness.

The quality of this shock comes across sharply in the first act of Donizetti’s Poliuto, when Paolina, the Roman wife of the Armenian nobleman Poliuto, happens on the Christians practising their secret rites. Paolina is on the trail of her husband when she comes across the sound of singing, trembling as she recognizes his voice as he prays during the baptismal rites. As she looks around for evidence of the “bloody altars” on which she suspects the apostates pursue their foul and illicit worship, the distant but sweet harmonies of the Christians’ hymn take hold of her as she acquaints herself with the strangeness of a faith whose prayers seek forgiveness “even for their enemies”.

The ensuing aria, “Di quai soave lachrimae”, is one of those quintessential operatic moments in which a change in one of the characters asserts itself through the music on the audience. As Paolina finds herself mysteriously overcome by the “unknown delightful force” taking hold of her, Donizetti arrests the music’s hitherto frantic pace and broadens out the orchestral palette. The soprano line carves out a rising series of downward trickles which gain in force as the harmonic language absorbs some of the fluid stability of the foregoing hymn; the music paints Paolina’s passage from bewildered weeping to a sense of a “dismal veil” being lifted from her eyes. “Par che il devoto canto / ritrovi un’eco in ciel!”, she concludes (“it is as if the devout hymn finds an echo in heaven”).

Although the passage marks the conversion of Paolina’s heart, the rest of her does not follow her husband in his new profession until the end of the opera when martyrdom and the lions of Rome’s Colosseum beckon. Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano, no less than Corneille before them, are at pains to show that the martyrdom of both Poliuto (Polyeucte) and Paolina (Pauline) is voluntary; that the terms of the new religion are absolute, making false confession impossible. But Donizetti and Cammarano are equally sure that Paolina’s martyrdom is as romantic as it is religious: she goes to her death for her husband as much as for her God.

To conceal the grand conflicts of history and myth in the motivating psychology of romantic entanglement is, of course, the great smuggling trick of nineteenth-century opera. Poliuto does bring it off, however, remarkably well, Cammarano and Donizetti sharpening and softening considerably the characterization of the Roman pro-consul Severo, Paolina’s former betrothed, to bring the love triangle into greater relief. More significant, perhaps, is the way the opera ties the romantic experience of suspicion and self-doubt to the phenomenology of religious conversion, Donizetti’s light musical touch managing almost effortlessly to trace the passage of each character’s fleeting fears and hopes. From Poliuto’s lapses of faith, first in his new God, second in his wife, to Paolina’s confused conversion and Severo’s attempts to win back his former beloved, the emotions here gain their authenticity from their constantly fugitive status.

If it is remarkable that Glyndebourne chose to open their current festival with a staging of one of Donizetti’s lesser known mature works, the degree to which both conductor and director managed to capture the work’s dramatic subtlety is more remarkable still. In her second Glyndebourne production, the French director Mariame Clément has shunned grand gesture for a staging that focuses on the evanescent contrasts which animate the opera. The set, designed by Julia Hansen and sensitively lit by Bernd Pukrabek, consists largely of tall stone blocks which, when at rest, project a kind of cloying drabness but which when moved around to form walls, rooms and previously unseen openings, lead to an exhilarating sense of dynamic space in which the possibility of flight and concealment, hope and salvation are constantly coming in and out of view. Each scene is thus continually in a state of becoming, rather than fully manifest, which leaves it to the music to provide both the requisite monumentality and emotional depth; and also to the clever video projections, by fettFilm, which consist of momentary vignettes – civilians running for cover in a wartorn city, a bedroom window, billowing waves, a brilliantly green landscape – which come and go with the same speed as images in the music and libretto. Visually, the staging seems to take its cue from a parallel between Roman occupied Armenia and Sarajevo under siege, and the modern costumes are understated in their functionality, from Paulina’s frumpy respectable frock to the anonymous (though Soviet-derived) uniforms of the Roman soldiery.

Enrique Mazzola’s conducting is similarly subtle, keeping the pace high so that Donizetti’s sometimes rather trying “oom-pah” accompaniments never risk becoming leaden, with the London Philharmonic managing to combine a smooth, swelling modern sound with astonishing fleet-footedness. The singing, too, is as good as one could expect anywhere, with Michael Fabiano’s strident, powerful tenor capturing Poliuto’s rather pompous anguish. This contrasts well with Matthew Rose’s resplendent bass as the scheming high priest Callistene. The significantly more moderated approaches of both Ana Maria Martinez’s Paolina and Igor Golvatenko’s Severo answer well to the greater depth of their characters’ romantic conflicts: while Severo’s smooth and lithe baritone probably delivers the evening’s most exceptional singing, Martinez’s striking ability to vary the intensity and depth of her soprano yields the most memorable performance.

Poliuto was originally written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1838, but a proscription on dramatic representations of Christian martyrdom meant that its stage life actually began in Paris, where a translated and adapted version of the opera fared moderately well as Les Martyrs. Donizetti and Cammerano had attempted to distract attention from the martyrdom plot by making Poliuto fiercely jealous of Paolina and Severo, thus bolstering the animating role of the love triangle. It’s one of the few aspects of the opera which jars – the suspicious raving Act II’s Poliuto seems entirely disconnected from the serene neophyte of Act I – but it provides an instructive reminder of how difficult the consuming passion of jealousy can be to project on the operatic stage.

Certainly, the skill with which Georges Bizet channels the most destructive of emotions through the character of Don José remains a breathtaking example of how it can be done. That said, the opera has become so familiar that we often forget that José, rather than Carmen, is the opera’s real “character” in the nineteenth-century sense of the term.

There is little familiarity in English National Opera’s current staging of the opera, a revival of Calixto Bieto and Ryan Wigglesworth’s well received 2012 production, directed here by Joan Anton Rechi and conducted by Richard Armstrong. Here it’s not the modern dress and over-abundance of booze bottles and 1980s Mercedes saloons (a wry reference to Carmen’s friend) that defamiliarize the action, but the constant presence of imminent violence which, until it erupts fully in the closing scene, harries and menaces the occupants of the stage with a kind of orchestral virtuosity. The closing scene itself, with Carmen imprisoned by her “je ne regrette rien” code of honour, is astonishingly brutal. José, sick, deranged and raving, veers between his hopeless pursuit of the Carmen who tortures him in his dreams and his wish to annihilate the real woman, whose indifference reminds him of his increasingly deluded state. Finally, he drags his victim down by the hair and throws her across the stage. For once the knife attack has more than an ironic relation to Escamillo’s off-stage bullfight: Carmen’s murder here has all the purposiveness and pointlessness of a sacrificial act.

The revival is confidently directed by Rechi, and Armstrong’s handling of the score is rather more fluent than his predecessor’s. Justina Gringyte, debuting in a role which she was clearly born to sing and play, makes a strong impression in the title role both as actor and singer, while the tenor Eric Cutler, making his company debut, excels as José. An interesting extra tension comes from the way the grit of the staging grates against the luxurious sensuousness of the opera’s musical fabric. The polite duetting of Mercedes and Frasquita, for example, sounds wonderfully odd coming from Carmen’s drunken and mercilessly unscrupulous companions.

Such tensions – which can be invigorating to the knowing opera audience but rather alienating for neophytes – are strongly in contrast to Clément and Mazzola’s Poliuto, which despite the contemporary scope of the staging plays the opera very much within its natural dramaturgical confines. Such is also true of ENO’s other current offering, a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance directed by the latest of the company’s screen-star imports, Mike Leigh.

Leigh professes to hate opera, but his love of Gilbert and Sullivan is wholehearted and shines through benevolently in this affectionate staging. The director’s theatrical skill is manifest in the way in which he draws on the big spaces of the Coliseum’s stage – and on the exceptional talents of its orchestra, company and soloists – while projecting a show entirely in keeping with the modest dramatic scope of the operetta. The only ironies on the stage are the ones intended by the author and composer, and there are no grand effects of any kind. Besides the superb quality of the singing (especially Andrew Shore’s Major-General Stanley, Joshua Bloom’s Pirate King and Claudia Boyle’s resplendent Mabel) and playing – all wonderfully and instinctively led by David Parry – the only quality that really marks out the production is the elegant economy of Alison Chitty’s set designs, which use a giant circle cut out of the blue-sea backdrop to open and close the dramatic focus as well as provide a visual link with the kind of picture-book illustrative style with which the work’s fond anarchism marries best. Playing to a packed house, if the production was intended to convert new audiences to the production values of the modern opera house, ENO’s Pirates will take some beating.

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