Donizetti’s French grand opera is a thrilling new addition to Opera Rara’s catalogue of 19th century bel canto rarities.

 

As fully-fledged productions of operas of this scale are seldom encountered  on the stage these days, Opera Rara’s latest release, a magnificent recording of Donizetti’s 1840 four-act grand opera Les Martyrs will be greeted with open arms by many enthusiasts who have to rely on experiencing this elaborate art form at a remove.

 

Conducted with white hot passion by Sir Mark Elder at the helm of the superbly committed Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, this 3-CD set follows a new critical edition of Donizetti’s score. This the composer adapted and greatly expanded from that of his Italian opera seria, Poliuto, after the latter was banned on the eve of its premiere in Naples in 1838 because of its overtly religious content.

 

Set to a libretto by Eugène Scribe, Les Martyrs plays out against a ghoulish backdrop of persecution under imperial Roman rule in third century Armenia, where Christian converts were fed to marauding lions before a baying mob of onlookers.

 

Heading the cast as the Roman-warrior-turned-Christian-convert, Polyeucte, and his wife and eventual fellow convert, Pauline, are the American tenor Michael Spyres, and silver-voiced Canadian-Lebanese soprano, Joyce El-Khoury. These young singers are on tremendous form in this studio recording which preceded a widely acclaimed concert performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall last November.

 

Both soprano and tenor comfortably inhabit their virtuoso roles. El-Khoury’s formidable arsenal of accomplishments, blazing top C’s, effortlessly despatched coloratura, gossamer-fine pianissimos, inform the singer’s portrayal of divided love, loyalty and courageous resolve.  

 

Spyres’s performance likewise is beautifully observed, his pliant phrasing and plangent head tones alternating with clarion-toned climaxes. Not the least of these is an astonishing high E natural, pitched dead-centre in full voice (gasps of amazement all round).

 

Basses Brindley Sherratt and Clive Bayley and baritone David Kempster each hold their own in the casting stakes, and the Opera Rara Chorus seize their several moments to shine in Donizetti’s grandiose score, created to appease the spectacle-hungry Paris Opéra audience of the day.

 

Technically, the recording is wonderfully spacious, allowing one to savour without distortion the full sonic spectrum of colours and textures embedded in Donizetti’s vocal and orchestral writing.

 

As ever, this new release is backed by Opera Rara’s trademark high production values including comprehensive programme notes, and an English translation of the French libretto. Les Martyrs is available directly from Opera Rara at http://www.opera-rara.com

 

William Charlton-Perkins

Durban, South Africa, 21 May 2015

 

 

 

CAPTION

Pictured from left, tenor Michael Spyres, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and conductor Sir Mark Elder acknowledge applause after the concert performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall of Donizetti’s ‘Les Martyrs’ in November 2014, which followed Opera Rara’s studio recording of the work.

 

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