Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Royal Festival Hall: Les Martyrs with Opera Rara and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment ★★★★

 By Mary Grace Nguyen
Last night, Opera Rara and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) came together to introduce Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at the Royal Festival Hall. It is an opera that is rarely performed, and was a pleasure to hear, for the first time, in a concert format with performances from a selection of buoyant and sumptuous singers including the exciting conducting of Mark Elder. 
Poliuto is the original Italian opera written by Donizetti in 1838; two years later he re-wrote the opera in French hence, Les Martyrs. It was perfectly composed by Donizetti to entertain the Parisians of the 1840s. The story is loosely based on Pierre Corneille’s 1642 tragic play Polyeucte and - at the time -  blasphemous subject of Christian Martyrdom. Just before its premier in 1838, it was censored in Naples due to the controversial nature of the opera.  
Les Martyrs is a ravishing piece filled with recitatives, Italian musical forms and sweet choral sounds. The overture alone is filled with a variety of melodies that conjure beauty, joy, love and religious tension, which was elegantly applied by the OAE’s strings, harps and enthusiastic double basses. The energetic force of Elder was present through the outstanding performance of the OAE particularly the woodwind and oaky brass instruments who were also accompanied by fanfares; these musicians would poke out from up and beyond the stage, intermittently, throughout the opera. 
Donizetti originally wrote the opera with a divertissement but this was taken out for the evening’s performance. This didn't have a negative effect on the evening as the opera had some of the most lavishly sung operas including 'O sainte mélodie! Concerts harmonieux.'
Rehearsals: Mark Elder with  Joyce El-Khoury
The story is set just after the Romans had conquered Armenia. The Roman Polyeucte (Michael Spyres) decides to convert to Christianity and his wife Pauline (Joyce El-Khoury), who is confident of her Pagan religion, tries to encourage Polyeucte to believe otherwise. Pauline’s father Félix (David Kempster) is the Governor of Armenia who instructs his secretaries to transcribe edicts sentencing Christians to death. The opera which is finely written with potent themes of heroism, religious devotion and revelation is constructed with glorious music which ends  dramatically: Christians are served on a platter to lions as ordered by the high priests and governors of Romans, including Pauline who miraculously converts to Christianity. This scene was cleverly encapsulated in Donizetti’s music: you could hear the energy of the OAE (and the roar of the lions.) 
Opera Rara singers, both as Christians and pagans, sang with strength and vigour which brought audiences back to Paris as it would have been experienced in the early 1800s. Some solos were also reinforced by Andrew Friendhoff, Rosalind Waters and Simon Preece.
Joyce El-Khoury sang as the tenacious and graceful Pauline. Dressed in a black, elegant and ‘poofy’ dress, the Canadian soprano sang with endearing charm that took the audiences’ breathe away. Such songs including ‘O toi, qui fus témoin de l'amour de Sévère’ were sung with delicacy and (may I say) spiritualism, finely portraying her coloratura talents.
Michael Spyres sang as our troublemaker and Roman rebel Polyeucte. As a bel canto tenor, he bought out an elated spirit in Polyeucte which is well suited for a man who has seen the light, so to speak, and converted religion. Yet there was also something silky smooth about Spyres voice that got the audience excited. This was re-affirmed when he sang an e natural in the aria ‘Oui, j'irai dans leurs temples’ (as he told me on twitter), which was part of the original score of Donizetti, which he also admitted was ‘a bit mad!’. Mark Elder was just as shocked as the audience as he had to turn around to make sure it was real.

David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt and Clive Bayley were on top form too boldly making their Roman authoritarian presence known. They managed to heighten the ominous tone of the opera that lead onto the sextet ‘a la lucia di Lammermoor’ which includes Wynne Evans as Polyeucte's Christian friend Néarque. Evans proved that he does more than simply sing Go compare! adverts. The honest and genuineness of his character was vocally carried with loveliness.
Christian Husband and Pagan Wife: Joyce El-Khoury & Michael Spyres
The opera was an absorbing experience. The Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic also showed off its skills as I could hear the OAE, Opera Rara chorus and opera singers clearly - as far back as row SS! Here’s hoping that next year's season of Glyndebourne can live up to the standards that this show has successfully executed. 

The South Bank Centre has more evants with the OAE. Click here for more information. For more information about the OAE click here and for Opera Rara, click here. (I purchased my own ticket for the evening's opera.)