Arts & Events

West Edge Opera’s Concert Version of Donizetti’s POLIUTO

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday April 04, 2015 - 10:40:00 AM

Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Poliuto, now rarely performed, experienced a difficult delivery at birth. Donizetti, who was appointed director of the Naples Conservatory in 1837, originally prepared Poliuto for an 1839 première in Naples. However, when Neapolitan censors gave him trouble over Poliuto, Donizetti resigned his post in Naples and took off for Paris, where he produced in quick succession Poliuto, La Fille du Régiment , and La Favorite.  

Paris was in some ways the optimal destination for Poliuto, since this opera was based, albeit very loosely, on the great 17th century French dramatist Pierre Corneille’s Polyeucte. The French public, proud of their literary and dramatic heritage, would be familiar with Corneille’s play and welcome its transposition into an opera by Donizetti, who in 1840 was at the peak of his illustrious career. Since Corneille’s play dealt with Christian martyrs in Armenia, an eastern province of the Roman Empire, circa 250 AD; and also presumably because the libretto for Don-izetti’s Poliuto, written by Salvadore Cammarano, differed quite drastically from Corneille’s play; Donizetti’s Poliuto was given the title Les Martyrs for the Paris première and was performed in French, with the de rigeur addition of a ballet. 

Whereas all the characters of Corneille’s Polyeucte, whether Roman pagans or Armenian Christians, were rigorously honorable; Cammarano’s libretto for Donizetti’s Poliuto created an entirely new character, Callistene, who is the unabashed villain of the opera. Likewise, whereas Corneille’s play was a high-principled tragedy written in the neo-classical style of the age of Louis XIV, Donizetti’s opera was a melodrama written for the 19th century Italian opera-going public. The differences in tone are striking. 

West Edge Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Poliuto offered a scaled-down concert version led by Musical Director Jonathan Khuner at the piano, plus a cellist, violinist, and clarinetist. In addition to a fine cast of singers, a small chorus sang as the Armenian congregation of Christians. I caught the Wednesday, April 1 per-formance of Poliuto at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.  

Poliuto, sung by tenor Michael Desnoyers, is an Armenian nobleman who, at the beginning of the opera, converts to Christianity at the urging of his Armenian Christian friend Nearco, ably sung by tenor Michael Jankosky. This conversion is carried out secretly in a cave because a recent Roman decree has outlawed conversion to the new faith on pain of death. Thus, Poliuto seeks to keep his conversion a secret even from his beloved wife, Paulina, an Armenian noblewoman who practices the old pagan faith. However, Paulina, troubled by a dream, follows her husband and observes from a distance his ritual baptism. Beautifully sung by soprano Elizabeth Zharoff, Paulina finds herself moved to tears by the Christians’ prayer that offers blessings even to their enemies. As Poliuto, tenor Michael Desnoyers sang capably, though his tone seemed to me a bit brittle. On the other hand, the gorgeously full, rich tone of Elizabeth Zharoff resounded gloriously throughout the fine acoustic space of Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage theatre.  

Prior to her recent marriage to Poliuto, Paulina had fallen in love with Severo, a Roman general. When Severo was reportedly killed in battle with the Persians, Paulina dutifully accepted her father’s choice of Poliuto as her husband. Suddenly, however, Severo, whom Paulina thought dead, now appears as proconsul sent from Rome to govern Armenia and quash the Armenians’ recent devotion to Christianity. Severo, ardently sung by baritone Anders Froehlich, arrives in Armenia with hopes of marrying his beloved Paulina. The shock of this sudden turn of events throws Paulina into a torment of conflicting emotions, admirably expressed in an aria of noble sentiments, at the close of which she steely rebuffs Severo’s hopes.  

Meanwhile, Callistene, pagan High Priest of Armenia, (a character totally invented by librettist Cammarano), has insidiously planted a seed of doubt in Poliuto’s ear regarding Paulina’s earlier love for Severo. When Poliuto observes from a distance the tense but impassioned meeting between his wife and Severo, Poliuto becomes enraged, thinking his wife is betraying him. However, news comes to him of the arrest of Nearco, his best friend and fellow Christian. When Nearco is threatened with torture if he does not name any new convert to the outlawed Christian faith, Poliuto proudly steps forward and turns himself in. Paulina falls at Severo’s feet and begs for the life of her husband in the name of the love she and Severo once shared. Enraged, Poliuto smashes the altar of Jupiter and is dragged away for execution. 

After intermission, Callistene, robustly sung by bass John Bischoff, announces that many Armenian Christians have announced their willingness to go to death alongside Poliuto rather than renounce their faith. Callistene worries aloud that Paulina may persuade her former beloved Severo to grant clemency to her husband, Poliuto. Cammarano’s libretto even makes Callistene secretly motivated by Paulina’s earlier rejection of his lust for her. In a magnificent sextet, Callistene seeks to manipulate the population to demand Poliuto’s immediate execution, while Poliuto, Nearco, Paulina, Severo and Paulina’s father, Felice, sing of their conflicting emotions. 

In his cell, Poliuto dreams of Paulina and awakes to find her before him. Recognizing her innocence, Poliuto forgives Paulina and they reconcile. She declares her readiness to convert to Christianity; and Poliuto, seeing that her conversion is genuine, baptizes his wife as a fellow Christian. They ecstatically resolve to go to heaven together. When Severo and his men arrive to lead Poliuto to the arena where he will be fed to the lions, Paulina declares her conversion to Christianity and vows to accompany her husband to immortal life in heaven. Severo begs her to reconsider in the name of her father, Felice, but Paulina is resolute in her faith. Poliuto and Paulina are led to their death in the arena, and Severo falls on his sword in despair. 

Thus ends Donizetti’s melodramatic reworking of Corneille’s tragedy Polyeucte. In reviving this rarely performed Donizetti opera, West Edge Opera has assembled a fine cast, led by the outstanding singing of Elizabeth Zharoff as Paulina and Anders Froehlich, as Severo; and this company has shown that it provides Bay Area audiences with exciting new opera experiences – a task they will fulfill yet again on May 3rd, when they perform Verdi’s rarely seen I due Foscari at Walnut Creek’s Rossmoor Event Center, and again on May 4th, at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage.