Review – Les Martyrs (Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 4 November 2014)
Polyeucte – Michael Spyres
Pauline – Joyce Al-Khoury
Sèvere – David Kempster
Félix – Brindley Sherratt
Callisthènes – Clive Bayley
Néarque – Wynne Evans
Une Femme – Rosalind Waters
Un Chrétien – Simon Preece
Opera Rara Chorus
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment
Sir Mark Elder (Conductor)
Les Martyrs – originally Poliuto and the result of over-zealous censors – is a curious hybrid. It’s a very Italian opera restrained by the corset of grand French opera.
A combination of some thrilling ensembles, dark orchestral hues and unique instrumentation – ophicleide anyone? – Les Martyrs takes a while to warm up. The first two acts canter along sedately, if not with any sense of true excitement, and it isn’t until the third act that a real sense of Donizettian drama unfolds. A duet followed by an impassioned tenor aria and a final sextet for all the major protagonists is the highlight of this opera. Indeed, that dramatic momentum eases off considerably in the final act, and even the closing scene, with lions getting ready to pounce, doesn’t thrill as much.
Indeed, ultimately for me Les Martyrs seems to lack any real sense of character or depth.
So, on paper it shouldn’t work – it is hardly one of Donizetti’s finer tragedies – but by dint of the commitment of everyone on stage, it does.
And towering over the entire performance, was the passion, conviction and – when required – delicate caress of Sir Mark Elder. From the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment he evoked with great skill the unique sound world that Donizetti wrote into the score, and from the singers, some incredible performances.
Michael Spyres was more than an adequate replacement for Bryan Hymel. His French – as with all the singers – was excellent and his tenor while light and supple didn’t blanch in the more ambitious and – in some ways – vocally tortuous moments. However I remain to be convinced by the – almost unnaturally sounding – note he hit in his confidently executed cabaletta.
As Pauline, Joyce Al-Khoury took a while to settle into the role. She has a unique vocal timbre that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but coupled with formidable technique including the ability to float high notes confidence, she made a compelling case for the estranged-cum-converted wife. Her vocal fireworks at the end of the First Act were rightly cheered, although I did think that in later ensembles her voice was too forced. But at no point were her interpretive skills in question.
It seemed unusual to me that there were no other female roles – reminding me of Dom Sébastian, also written for Paris towards the end of his career and also available on Opera Rara – but the remaining roles were well covered. Brindley Sherratt, David Kempster and Clive Bayley– as Félix, Sèvere and Callisthènes respectively were all vocally strong, each finding some fine moments of vocal nuance within their roles, although I did perceive moments of strain with David Kempster. Wynne Evans’ Néarque was perhaps the weakest link in the ensemble. Some troubling vibrato – particularly at the beginning – was coupled with some one-dimensional singing, made this Christian more cipher than heroic martyr.
And, drawn from the Opera Rara Chorus, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece both gave committed performances.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed with their usual verve and spirit – they are never anything less than a joy to hear and to watch.
Ultimately Les Martyrs, his first French grand opera, feels more like an interesting experiment than a fully formed work. Perhaps if Donizetti had had more time, or perhaps returned and revised it whenhe returned to Paris –alongside Dom Sébastian – it might have been something more substantial.
But Opera Rara are to be commended for reviving the work with Elder and the OAE and I look forward to Le duc D’Albe in 2015.