Poliuto is a tragedia lirica (or tragic opera) by Gaetano Donizetti from the Italian libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, which was based on Pierre Corneille's play Polyeucte written in 1641–42, reflecting the life of the martyr Saint Polyeuctus. However, Donizetti's opera was not staged in 1838 as planned and, with a French libretto written and performed in Paris in 1840, it became Les martyrs, the first of the two versions to be staged.
Poliuto was composed in 1838 and planned for performances at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. However, close to the time for the start of rehearsals, King Ferdinand II refused to allow the martyrdom of a Christian saint to be seen on stage and forbade the production.
With a commission for the Paris Opéra due from the composer when he left Naples for Paris in 1838, revisions to Poliuto took place in 1839-40. A French text was written by Eugene Scribe and Charles Duveyrier which conformed to the conventions of French grand opera. As Les martyrs, it was produced as one of Donizetti's two commissioned works for the company and was given on 10 April 1840, incorporating 80% of the music from Poliuto.
While initially only given in Italy as I martiri, a translation from the French Les martyrs, it was not until 30 November 1848 that it appeared for six performances at the San Carlo in its original Italian three-act version.
Although Donizetti had been gradually considering further involvement with Parisian stage, after the tremendous success of his Lucia di Lammermoor at the Théâtre-Italien in December 1837 after which, as Roger Parker and William Ashbrook note, "negotiations with Charles Duponchel, the director of the Opéra, took on a positive note for the first time".
By January 1838, Donizetti was in negotiations with the Paris Opéra to compose three new works, but while in Venice for the premiere of Maria de Rudenz, he had met and had been impressed with Adolphe Nourrit, who, for more than a decade, had been the principal tenor in Paris, having sung roles written for him by the major French composers such as Meyerbeer, Auber, Halevy, as well as Rossini when he had moved to Paris. But by the late 1830s, Nourrit’s popularity in Paris was in decline, and he was in danger of being supplanted in the public's affections by rising star Gilbert Louis Duprez.
With Donizetti committed to produce his next opera for Naples and with Nouritt staying in Venice at the same time, determined to "take on a [singing] technique which was so different from that which he had been taught", the tenor greatly influenced the composer in his choice of subject and in the progress of the new opera which was to be Poliuto. Donizetti tailored the title role for the tenor who had been engaged for the autumn season in Naples. The composer began work by 10 May on the music for the opera, which appears to have been planned for the autumn season.
However, by the middle of June, a glitch in the proceedings had appeared in the form of a letter from the Superintendent of the Royal Theatres to the San Carlo intendant, Domenico Barbaja, reminding him that submission of a libretto for proposed autumn season opera was overdue. This was duly reported to Cammarano, who responded with some objections, not the least of which was that his original brief had been totally reversed: "a small part for the tenor and then, with the engagement of Signor Nourrit, this condition was totally changed" he stated. Barbaja backed up Cammarano's objection, which also included his inability to meet with the newly-appointed censor, Royer, until his appointment was confirmed. Finally, the completed libretto moved up the chain of command with Royer's support until it reached the King. The Minister for Internal Affairs, who received the king's response, on 11 August communicated to Barbaja that "His majesty deigned with his own sacred hand to declare that the histories of the Martyrs are venerated in the Church and are not presented on the stage"
The opera's last-minute cancellation by the Catholic king of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies angered the composer and, resolved to move to Paris to further his career there, he left Naples by October 1838, vowing never to have any further dealings with the San Carlo administration. But the cancellation dealt a crushing blow to Nourrit's hopes of reviving his flagging career, and even though he appeared in the opera which was substituted, Saverio Mercadante's Il giuramento, and then productions of Elena da Feltre and Norma which followed, depression overtook him. On 8 March 1839 he jumped to his death from a window of his apartment in Naples.
For his part, Cammarano re-used some of the verses he had set for Poliuto in other librettos and these became quite well known. When it finally came time, ten years later, for Poliuto to be staged in Naples, he made a note in his preface to the libretto that: "out of respect for the music, and for the distinguished if unhappy friend who wrote it, I have left the poetry as it was in the original, appealing to the indulgence of the public."
Upon his arrival in Paris, Donizetti met the composer Adolphe Adam and offered his Poliuto to the Académie Royale de Musique and it was accepted for performances from April 1840. In re-designing Poliuto as an expanded, now four-act French grand opera, Donizetti had to make many changes; these included a new overture; the addition of a ballet; the addition of a women's chorus which proceeds Paolina's first aria; the expansion of the role of Félix, the Roman governor and Paolina's father, changing it to a bass from a tenor; and re-writing the tenor arias to suit the voice of Duprez rather than that of Nourrit. Other shifts in the placement of arias also took place.
The other principal change, which Ashbrook notes, is in the plot: "Essentially the plot of Les martyrs is that of Poliuto, without the motivation of the hero's jealousy" and he explains that Donizetti wanted to more closely mirror Corneille's original play for the Paris version, rather than use Cammarano's attempts to appease the censors in Naples by playing down the religious rivalry, an attempt, which in any case, was a failure.
Performance history of Poliuto and Les martyrs
Following the premiere of Les martyrs in Paris, where Ashbrook notes that it was not particularly successful, it appeared in Italy in translation as I martiri, but the "more compact, three-act Poliuto was generally preferred". As Poliuto, it was given its premiere on 30 November 1848, a few months after Donizetti's death and, later, it provided a vehicle for dramatic tenors such as Enrico Tamberlik (at Covent Garden in London in 1852) and Francesco Tamagno (in Rome in 1883), and was given "fairly regularly throughout the second half of the [19th] century".
The United States premiere was given in New York on 25 May 1859 while Les martyrs preceded it by some years when it was presented in New Orleans on 24 March 1848. London also saw the French work in April 1852.
20th century and beyond
Productions of Poliuto staged from the 1940 onwards have included those at La Scala, Milan in 1940 (with Beniamino Gigli and Maria Caniglia); at the Roman Baths of Caracalla with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in 1948, and again in Rome in December 1960 (with Franco Corelli and Maria Callas). It that point in her career, Callas was at the height of her fame, albeit having been absent from La Scala for two years, but her performances were regarded as triumphs with the public and many critics.
Another Rome Opera production followed in 1989 with Nicola Martinucci and Elizabeth Connell and two productions presented by the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo in 1993 and 2010. Other concert performances were given in the 1990s in cities such as Vienna (1986), Montpelier (1987), and New York (1998). The ABAO (Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera) company in Bilbao staged the work in February 2008 with Francisco Casanova and Fiorenza Cedolins in the two principal roles.
Ashbrook notes a revival of Les martyrs at La Fenice in Venice in 1978, which has been recorded, and it was also presented by the Opéra de Nancy in February 1996 as well as at the Teatro Municipale Valli, Reggio Emilia, in March 1997.
A revival of both the French and Italian versions is planned. Les martyrs will be given a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 4 November 2014 by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in cooperation with Opera Rara, which plans to record the opera.  The performance features Joyce El-Khoury.  As part of its 2015 season, the Glyndebourne Festival will present Poliuto with the support of the Peter Moores Foundation  and featuring tenor Michael Fabiano in the title role.
(roles in Les martyrs in brackets)
|Voice type||Premiere Cast:
10 April 1840
(Conductor: - )
30 November 1848
(Conductor: Antonio Farelli)
|Poliuto (Polyeucte), Roman convert to Christianity||tenor||Gilbert Duprez||Carlo Baucardé|
|Paolina (Pauline)||soprano||Julie Dorus-Gras||Eugenia Tadolini|
|Severo (Sévère), Roman proconsul||baritone||Jean-Étienne-Auguste Massol||Filippo Colini|
|Felice (Félix), Paolina's father, governor of Armenia||tenor
(Les martyrs: bass)
|Prosper Dérivis||Anafesto Rossi|
|Callistene (Callisthènes), High Priest of Jupiter||bass||Jacques-Émil Serda||Marco Arati|
|Nearco (Néarque), a Christian, Poliuto's friend||tenor||Pierre François Wartel||Domenico Ceci|
(Les martyrs: bass)
|Second Christian (in Les martyrs only)||baritone||Wideman|
- Place: Mytilene
- Time: c. 259 A.D.
Armenia has been conquered by the Romans, and they have decreed that Christianity, which has a significant following in the country, must be destroyed and its followers put to death. Paolina had been in love with the Roman general, Severo, and had only married Poliuto after pressure from her father, Felice, who told her that Severo and been killed in battle.
Act 1: The Baptism
Scene 1: The Entrance to a Hidden Sanctuary
A secret gathering of Christian worshippers assembles, ready to be baptised into the new faith. (Chorus: Ancor ci asconda un velo arcano / "May a veil of secrecy still protect us From the ungodly sword which threatens us"). As they go into the cave, Poliuto, the principal magistrate of Mytilene, enters and seeing his friend Nearco, the Christina leader, embraces him as he expresses his reservations about being baptised along with the others. He confides to his friend that he has misgivings regarding his wife’s loyalty to him, fearing that he still has a rival for her affections. Nearco, urging him to be calm and to turn his thoughts to God, causes Poliuto to pray: D'un'alma troppo fervida, Tempra, buon Dio, gli affetti / "Temper the emotions, dear God, of a soul that is too ardent".
Poliuto enter the shrine, as his wife Paolina, who has been following him, arrives outside. She suspects that he has become a Christian convert, and waits for him to reappear from the baptism, recognizing that she has come to the right place. She calls to Nearco when he leaves the cave, and he warns her not to become involved since death is the penalty for all. Upon hearing the voices coming from the cave as the service progresses, she finds herself strangely moved by its sincerity and power as the Christians pray for their persecutors: "Yes the prayer enters my heart" and, as the prayers continues, she feels the need the kneel as the Christians pray for their enemies as well: (Aria. Di quai soave lagrime, Aspersa è la mia gota / "My cheeks are moistened, With such gentle tears, How this sweet unknown power, goes straight to my soul!....a dark veil seems to fall from my eyes").
At that moment, Nearco and Poliuto leave the sanctuary and find Paolina there: "Have you abandoned your religion?" she asks her husband who states that he has no fear. Sounds of celebration outside are heard as Nearco returns to tell them that Severo, the Roman general, has returned from Rome: "The unsheathed sword hangs over all our heads" says Nierco, as Paolina realises that the report she had been given of Severo's death in battle was untrue. Experiencing both great joy and utter despair on learning that her lover has survived, she acknowledges to herself that now they can never be united. The Christians, proclaiming that they shall defy death, leave Paolina alone.
Scene 2: The Great Square of Mytilene
A jubilant crowd hails the arrival of Severo: Plausi all'inclito Severo, Lauri eterni alla sua chioma / "All hail the illustrious Severo, eternal laurels for his head". He addresses the people, and without specifying that he is describing the Christians, he tells them that he will sweep away the unholy rabble who, like a wicked serpent, are in their midst. Then, to himself, he expresses his desire to once again see his love. (Aria: Di tua beltade imagine È questo sol ch'io miro / "This sun I see is the image of your beauty".) Greeted by Callistene, he sees Felice, wishes to embrace him, and asks where his daughter is. In his awkward reply, Felice points to Polioto, acknowledging him as Palina's husband. Together, Severo, Callistene and Felice express their anger, frustration and confusion, with Severo enraged and bitter when he realizes that Paulina in married. (Cabaletta: No, l'acciar non fu spietato Che versava il sangue mio / "No, the sword that spilled my blood was not merciless, but the god who kept me alive was merciless indeed!") Again, each man expresses his anguish: for Polito it is a "cold hand gripping his heart"; for Callistene it is revenge; and for Felice, the "sun has become enshrouded in a thick cloud."
Act 2: The Neophyte
Scene 1: The gardens of Felice’s house
Severo angrily confronts Paolina. She tries to explain that she was tricked by her father and forced into marriage with Poliuto. Nonetheless, she now intends to remain faithful to her husband and insists that Severo leave her. Poliuto has learned of the meeting between the ex-lovers and is convinced of his wife’s infidelity, but his bitter thoughts of revenge are interrupted by the news that Nearco has been arrested by the Romans for his religious beliefs.
Scene 2: The Temple of Jupiter
Nearco is dragged into the temple in chains. The priests demand to know the name of his important new convert to Christianity. When they threaten Nearco with torture, Poliuto proudly reveals himself as the man they seek. Paolina entreats her father to save her husband’s life and then throws herself at Severo’s feet, begging him to show mercy for the sake of the love she knows he still has for her. Her actions so enrage Poliuto that he breaks free from his captors and smashes the pagan altar. He is quickly overpowered and led away with Nearco.
Act 3: Martyrdom
Scene 1: A sacred wood near the Temple of Jupiter
In the distance, the people can be heard encouraging all to go to the circus where they will see blood flow. (Chorus: Vieni, vieni...al circo andiamo... / "Come, come...let's go to the circus").
Priests enter awaiting the arrival of Callistene, the High Priest. He tells them that others have come forward and declared that they too will die for the Christian cause, while Paolina has gone to plead for Poliuto. Callistene encourages the priests to stir up the crowd. (Aria, then repeated by all: Alimento alla fiamma si porga, Tal che incendio vorace ne sorga / "Let the flames be fanned, So that a voracious fire blazes").
Scene 2: Inside the prison of the Temple of Jupiter
In his prison cell, Poliuto is asleep and wakes up, somewhat confused. He has dreamed that Paolina is in truth a loyal and faithful wife. (Aria: Visione gradita!... Bella, e di sol vestita / "A happy vision! Beautiful in the sunlight My wife ascended heavenward.") Just then, he hears someone approaching, and it is Paolina, who has persuaded the guards to let her visit him. Although she explains that did love Severo before meeting Poliuto, she now wishes nothing more than his death. Suspicious, Poliuto asks why then did she invite him to meet her at her father's house, but she denies that this happened and explains that it was a plot by the High Priest. He understands, silently begging for her forgiveness as he forgives her before he will die.
They are reconciled, and Paolina tells him that it is arranged that he need not die if he renounces his Christian beliefs. He responds: "But my soul would be lost!". Paolina: (Aria: A' piedi tuoi son io... Ah! fuggi da morte / "I am at your feet... Ah! flee from a death, That is so horrible".) But Poliuo is certain that eternal salvation awaits him after death: (Aria: Lasciando la terra, Il giusto non muore / "The just man does not die when leaving the world; He is reborn in heaven to a better life"). Coraggio inaudito! ("What incredible courage"), she exclaims, and recognising the strength of his faith, Paolina begs him to baptize her, so that she can die with him. At first Poliuto is unwilling to perform the baptism, but when he sees that her conversion is genuine, he agrees: "Grace has entered your soul. The road to salvation has just opened for you" he tells her.
Together they sing of the joys of eternal life together, Paolina exclaiming Ah! Il suon dell'arpe angeliche / "Ah! I already hear the sound, of angelic harps all around me! I see the light of a hundred and a hundred more suns shining!" and then, together, "It is granted me to live with you, in heaven for all eternity...." The doors to the amphitheatre open, revealing huge crowds waiting for the condemned.
Severo and his men arrive to take Poliuto to the arena. He chooses death and, when Paolina declares "I have embraced the faith of his God", Severo is horrified. She demands to die with her husband, but Severo continues to urge her to reconsider, at the same time as Callistene and the assembled priests continue to demands their deaths. In spite of his attempts, Savero fails to persuade Paolina to save herself because of her father, and the couple proclaim: "Let us die together". The signal is heard.
In a concerted finale, each expresses his or her feelings: Paolina and Poliuto (Il suon dell'arpe angeliche / "I already hear the sound of angelic harps"); Callistene, some Priests, and the assembled women (Sia maledetto, Chi reca insulta, Dei gran Tonante / "Cursed be he, who dares insult, the holy cult"); Savero (Giove credel, famelico, Di sangue e di vendetta / "Cruel Jupiter, starving, for blood and vengeance"); and the Priests urging then on to the arena. After one last attempt to change Paolina's mind, the couple, along with the condemned Christians, go off to their deaths.
The first four notes of a prominent D major celebratory/triumphal chorus (second D above middle C, followed by F#, B & A above middle C) toward the end of the opera (returning perhaps twice more for dramatic emphasis) are identical to the first four notes of the familiar second theme of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, in E minor, Op. 64 (Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza) in a different rhythm (6/8 rather than Donizetti's 4/4). First stated softly and plaintively in F-sharp major as an oboe solo in the opening "A" section of this structurally very orthodox ternary ABA movement, it returns loudly and passionately in the full orchestra in the movement's tonic key of D major near the end of the "A" recap, inimitably recalling the Donizetti D major chorus in question at that point, and then for the last time in the coda (after the orchestra bursts out for dramatic contrast with the cyclical "motto" theme, as it did similarly in the middle of the movement as a bridge between the "B" and the final "A" sections to modulate back to D major for the recap) softly in the descending strings, section by section, followed by the brief ascending-triad clarinet solo that ends the movement.
Opera House and Orchestra
Teatro alla Scala Orchestra and Chorus
(Recording of a performance at La Scala, 7 December)
|Audio CD: EMI CDMB
Cat: 5 65448-2
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
|Audio CD: Sony Classical
Cat: CSCR 8119-20
Teatro dell'Opera di Roma Orchestra and Chorus
|Audio CD: Nuova Era
Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni,
Ochestra Sonfonica dell'Emilaa Romagna and the Coro del Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo.
(Recording of a performance of the critical edition at the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, September)
|Audio CD: Ricordi,
Cat: RFCD 2023
Simone Del Savio,
Bergamo Musica Festival Orchestra and Chorus
(Recorded at the Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, September)
Les martyrs, 1840
(Polyceute, Pauline, Sévère, Néarque)
Opera House and Orchestra
|1975||Mario Di Felici,
Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo Orchestra and Chorus
(Recording of a performance at Bergamo, 22 September)
|Audio CD: Myto 3
Cat: MCD 972 154
Oslavio Di Credico
Teatro La Fenice Orchestra and Chorus
(Recording of performance at La Fenice)
|Audio CD: Mondo Musica
Cat: MFOH 10061
- Project Gutenberg etext of Polyeucte
- Ashbrook and Hibberd 2001, p. 224
- Black 1982, p. 51
- Parker and Ashbrook, p. 17
- Parouty, pp. 15—17
- Ashbrook 1998, p. 1045—1046
- Black 1984, pp. 46—47
- Cammarano to Barbaja, 16 June 1838, in Black 1984, p. 47
- King's Minister to Barbaja, 11 August 1838, in Black 1984, p. 48
- Cammarano's preface to his libretto, in Black 1984, p. 50
- Steane, 1997, pp. 12—13
- Laura D'Alessandro, "Donizetti: Un colpo di fulmine per sempre" (In Italian), Donizetti Society (London), Newsletter 114, October, 2011, pp. 18-19.
- José M. Irurzun, "Seen and Heard International Opera Review: Poliuto on musicweb-international.com
- Alexander Weatherson, "Gaetano Donizetti, Les Martyrs", Donizetti Society (London), Newsletter 68, June 1996
- Alexander Weatherson, "An Echt Martyrs", Donizetti Society (London), Newsletter 71, May 1997.
- "2014 Events: Donizetti's French Adventure" on opera-rara.com
- Southbank Centre's announcement
- Mark Brown, "Littlewoods heir's philanthropy to end after 50 years: Through his charitable foundation Peter Moores has given £215m to a wide range of projects, from arts to education", The Guardian (London), 3 December 2012
- "We hear that.....", in Opera (London), February 2014, Volume 65 No. 2
- Information from AmadeusOnline.net
- Source of recordings of Poliuto on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Source of recordings of Les martyrs on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- Ashbrook, William (1998), "Poliuto" in Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Three. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5
- Ashbrook, William and Sarah Hibberd (2001), in Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-140-29312-4. pp. 224 – 247.
- Black, John (1982), Donizetti’s Operas in Naples, 1822—1848. London: The Donizetti Society.
- Black, John (1984), The Italian Romantic Libretto: A Study of Salvadore Cammarano, Edinburgh: The University Press. ISBN 0-85224-463-0
- Parker, Roger; William Ashbrook (1994), "Poliuto: the Critical Edition of an 'International Opera'", in booklet accompanying the 1994 recording on Ricordi.
- Parouty, Michel (tran. Hugh Graham) (1997), "Donizetti and Poliuto" in booklet accompanying the 1960 EMI recording
- Steane, John (1997), "Callas and Poliuto", in booklet accompanying the 1960 EMI recording</ref>
- Allitt, John Stewart (1991), Donizetti: in the light of Romanticism and the teaching of Johann Simon Mayr, Shaftesbury: Element Books, Ltd (UK); Rockport, MA: Element, Inc.(USA)
- Ashbrook, William (1982), Donizetti and His Operas, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052123526X ISBN 0-521-23526-X
- Ashbrook, William and Roger Parker (1994), "Poliuto: the Critical Edition of an 'International' Opera", in booklet accompanying the Gavazenni / Ricordi recording.
- Harewood, Earl of, and Antony Peattie (eds.), The New Kobbe's Opera Book, London: Ebury Press, 1997. ISBN 0-09-181410-3
- Loewenberg, Alfred (1970). Annals of Opera, 1597-1940, 2nd edition. Rowman and Littlefield
- Osborne, Charles, (1994), The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340713
- Sadie, Stanley, (Ed.); John Tyrell (Exec. Ed.) (2004), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0195170672 (hardcover). ISBN 0195170679 OCLC 419285866 (eBook).
- Tommasini, Anthony, "Filling Out the Callas Legacy (in Spite of Callas)", The New York Times, February 1, 1998. Accessed 23 December 2008.
- Weinstock, Herbert (1963), Donizetti and the World of Opera in Italy, Paris, and Vienna in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, New York: Pantheon Books. ISBN 63-13703
- Donizetti Society (London) website Source for further research
- Libretto (Italian)