This year’s Glyndebourne season is unusually daring, with few of the big commercial bankers that you’d expect; there’s Carmen, and that’s your lot in terms of the guaranteed crowd-pleasers. However, the most daring production of the season is a British première – a mere 167 years after it was first performed – of Donizetti’s Poliuto.
The bad news is that it has a staging that verges on the perfunctory, with some of the ugliest set design I’ve seen in any opera house. The good news is everything else; it seems extraordinary that an opera this rich and provocative can be so ignored, with only a much-admired Maria Callas performance from 1960 to compare it to.
While the staging is updated to 1930s Fascist Europe (presumably Italy), the original storyline revolves around 3rd century Armenia, where the Romans are struggling to stamp out the new religion, Christianity, which is spreading through the populace like wildfire. The most high-profile convert, Poliuto, is a nobleman whose wife Paolina has married him reluctantly after her true love Severo, a Roman proconsul, was believed killed in battle. However, when Severo unexpectedly returns from Rome, leading a mission to put down the Christians in their midst, the scene is set for a memorable and startling love triangle.
Donizetti’s score is very much in the grand mid-19th century romantic tradition, with spectacular choral climaxes interspersed with soaring duets and arias. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted with giddy enthusiasm by Enrique Mazzola, take relish in performing the score with gusto, with some of the more ecstatic passages being received with a sort of delighted surprise by the audience.
The Glyndebourne Chorus, many of whom are attired in uniforms to signify their nefarious intentions, are as impeccable as ever, but the star trio of Michael Fabiano (Poliuto), Ana Maria Martinez (Paolina) and Igor Golovatenko (Severo) are in spectacular voice and manage to make their entanglement both moving and gripping. At just a shade under two hours (not including, of course, the long interval), it doesn’t drag either, meaning that there’s no time for any tedium.
It’s just a pity, then, that the set design (by Julia Hansen) is so uninspired, composing mainly of a series of large, monolithic blocks that move around the stage to no particular effect. And the decision to set it in the 1930s in Mariame Clément’s staging has no particular resonance; if her intention was to compare Roman imperialism with fascism, fine, but then the visual allusions to 1990s Sarajevo make no particular sense.
The ending, revolving around a spectacular confrontation with destiny at the arena, is only made compelling because of the intensity of the performers; there is no such support from the production. However, this is essentially a quibble when set against the greater achievements of this staging. With any luck, Poliuto will now take its deserved place in the repertoire, and I look forward to seeing it performed at Covent Garden or the ENO before too long. It’s what it deserves.
Poliuto runs at Glyndebourne until 15th July 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.