sat 13/07/2024

Poliuto, Glyndebourne Festival Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Poliuto, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Poliuto, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Donizetti gets Glyndebourne's season off to a sober and psychological start

This Poliuto updates ancient Armenia to a contemporary European totalitarian stateTristram Kenton

Fashion is a funny thing, in opera no less than the sartorial trappings that go with it (everything from tight, hipster trews to billowing ballgowns at last night's Glyndebourne season opening, in case you were wondering). Donizetti's classical tragedy Poliuto is historically a miss rather than a hit, never quite finding its footing in the repertoire, despite some early success.

But on the strength – and strength of appropriately gladiatorial proportions it really is – of Glyndebourne's exceptional cast, Poliuto may yet make its case as a classic: a sober meditation on faith and fidelity that achieves almost Verdi-like intensity within its compact drama.

Anyone hoping for a repeat of director Mariame Clément's ebullient 2013 Don Pasquale will be disappointed by the sombre, monolithic visuals on offer here. There's not a toga or a lion in sight for a production dominated by a series of vast stone columns, created by Clément’s regular design partner Julia Hansen, that confine, conceal and imprison the action. The context is deliberately vague; while the programme speaks of Sarajevo and military uniforms have a whiff of the GDR about them, you could also find Mussolini’s Italy or even – yes – Nazi Germany in it all. Corneille’s ancient Armenia becomes a 20th-century totalitarian state, complete with flag-waving, pastel-clad youth, a zero-tolerance policy towards Christianity and an enthusiastic line in public executions.

Any hints that do remain in the score of signature Donizettian camp are emphatically and successfully suppressed

A plot simpler than most sets up a love-triangle between the newly Christian convert Poliuto (Michael Fabiano), his wife Paolina (Ana Maria Martinez) and the oppressive Roman Proconsul Severo (Igor Golovatenko). Torn between her former love and her husband, the virtuous Paolina chooses death in the arena alongside Poliuto, converting to Christianity rather than marry the murderer of her husband. If that all sounds rather wide-screen classical epic, the result in Donizetti’s Italian three-act version (his French reimagining Les Martyrs sprawls over an hour longer) is surprisingly intimate, achieving a psychological truthfulness and conviction we don’t usually expect from the composer.

Critic George Templeton Strong, in a wonderful phrase, described the music as “Verdi-esque rather than Donizetti-oid”, and it’s an observation that could also apply to the action. Musical set-pieces are eschewed in favour of a through-composed music-drama that flows from ensemble to duet to aria as dictated by emotional rather than structural concerns. There are some inventive effects of orchestration – a whole variety of offstage/onstage ensemble pairings, as well as a striking solo for clarinet in Act I.

Any hints that do remain in the score of signature Donizettian camp are emphatically and successfully suppressed by this production (Act III’s heavenly vision the single exception – flute and harp generating far too cloying an atmosphere: if Disney did executions…) But in her attempts to add depth, Clément does occasionally risk pseudery. Hansen’s projections, turning the pillars by turns into gardens, open windows, even a Roman amphitheatre, work well enough when they are literal, but metaphorical rolling waves and stormy cloudscapes only distract from the perfectly sufficient psychological intensity of Martinez’s singing, when they attempt to capture the contrary currents of Paolina’s mind.

It’s hard to imagine this fine score better sung, however, than it is here. Michael Fabiano (pictured left) returns as Poliuto, glorious in all his growing Met-honed vocal power, and delighting in writing that celebrates the grit and darker shades that his voice yields so successfully. His voice and careful vocal colouring does the bulk of his acting, which is exactly as it should be, and is matched for sensitivity by both Martinez’s ecstatic, fine-spun Paolina (pictured above with Golovatenko) and Golovatenko’s wonderfully nuanced Severo – no pantomime villain, this. Fine support comes from Matthew Rose’s High Priest (though why he is dressed in a religious tunic rather than a secular official’s outfit in this police-state is unclear) and the Glyndebourne chorus and orchestra, who bring all the colour the production denies to the performance under the propulsive direction of Enrique Mazzola.

Poliuto was a bold choice as Glyndebourne’s season opener – a dark start to this sunniest and most pastoral of opera festivals, but a finer and more satisfying one than a disposable Donizetti’s comedy. Is it enough to bring this bel canto tragedy back into fashion? We’ll have to wait and see.

Michael Fabiano returns as Poliuto, glorious in all his growing Met-honed vocal power


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article


The totalitarian backdrop seemed deliberately ambiguous, but I wondered if it made most sense interpreted as a Soviet setting (Soviet Armenia, even?). We might then interpret the "pagans" as members of an official, state-sanctioned church, permitted to worship within the limits tolerated by the state and largely in cahoots with the secular authority. That would explain the choral women in Orthodox headscarves as well as the high priest's religious garb. The "Christians", in this interpretation, might be members of a dissident, proscribed and persecuted religious organisation. I only wish I could have shared your admiration for what seemed to me one of Donizetti's dullest scores!

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters