Poliuto is a tragedia lirica, or tragic opera, by Gaetano Donizetti. Salvadore Cammarano wrote the Italian libretto after Pierre Corneille's play Polyeucte (1641–42). It was composed in 1838 and first performed on 30 November 1848 at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples. However, a revised version of the work with a French text had been produced earlier at the Paris Opéra under the title Les martyrs on 10 April 1840.
By January 1838, Donizetti was in negotiations with the Paris Opéra to compose two new works. While in Venice for the premiere of Maria de Rudenz he had met, and had been impressd with, Adolphe Nourrit, for more than a decade the principal tenor in Paris; but Nourrit’s popularity was now in decline, and he was in danger of being supplanted in the public's affections by rising star Gilbert Louis Duprez. Nourrit and Donizetti were in complete agreement that a grand opera in the style of Halévy's La Juive would exactly suit the tastes of a French audience and provide Nourrit with the ideal vehicle to restore his career.
But Donizetti's next opera was scheduled to be premiered in Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose King Ferdinand II was a devout Catholic who refused to allow any theatrical representation of religious scenes and forbade the production at the last minute. The management of the Teatro di San Carlo were forced to substitute Pia de' Tolomei, and Donizetti left immediately for Paris vowing never to have any further contact with Naples. The cancellation dealt a crushing blow to Nourrit's hopes of reviving his flagging career, and on 8 March 1839 he jumped to his death from a window of his apartment in Naples. On reaching Paris, Donizetti revised and expanded the opera to a French text which was eventually produced as Les martyrs at the Salle Le Pelletier of the Paris Opera on 10 April 1840. Poliuto was not performed in its original Italian form until after Donizetti's death.
|Role (roles in Les martyrs in brackets)||Voice type||Premiere Cast
(Les martyrs), 10 April 1840
(Conductor: - )
|Premiere Cast (Poliuto),
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.
Act 1: The Baptism
Scene 1: The Entrance to a Hidden Sanctuary
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. Poliuto, the principal magistrate of Mytilene, has come to a secret gathering of worshippers to be baptised into the new faith. He confides to his friend Nearco, who is a fellow convert, that he has misgivings regarding his wife’s loyalty to him. She was in love with a Roman general named Severo and only married Poliuto after pressure from her father, Felice, who told her that Severo and been killed in battle.
Poliuto enters the Sanctuary, and immediately his wife, Paolina, appears. She has followed him, suspecting that he has become a Christian convert. She waits for him to reappear from the baptism and, overhearing the service, finds herself strangely moved by its sincerity and power as the Christians pray for their persecutors. Nearco arrives with the news that not only is Severo still alive but that he intends to root out and destroy every Christian in the land. Paolina experiences both great joy and utter despair on learning that her lover has survived, but acknowledging that now they can never be united.
Scene 2: The Great Square of Mytilene
A jubilant crowd hails the arrival of Severo. He is overjoyed to see Paolina again, but his feelings quickly turn to rage and bitterness when he learns of her marriage to Poliuto.
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
In his prison cell, Poliuto awakes from an uneasy sleep. He has had a dream that Paolina is in truth a loyal and faithful wife. She has persuaded the guards to let her visit him, and he forgives her and they are reconciled. Paolina urges him to save himself by renouncing his Christian beliefs, but he is certain that eternal salvation awaits him after death. 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.
Poliuto is to be fed to the lions, and Severo and his men arrive to take him to the arena. Severo is horrified when Paolina announces that she too is a Christian and demands to die with her husband. Severo urges her to reconsider, but she remains determined to join Poliuto in martyrdom. They are led away together to face their gruesome fate.
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.
(Poliuto, Paolina, Severo, Callistene)
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
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
- Ashbrook, William, Donizetti and His Operas, Cambridge University Press, 1982, ISBN 0-521-23526-X ISBN 0-521-23526-X
- Harewood, Earl of, and Antony Peattie (eds.), The New Kobbe's Opera Book, London: Ebury Press, 1997. ISBN 0-09-181410-3
- Holden, Amanda (Ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Osborne, Charles, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini – Donizetti – Bellini, London: Methuen, 1994. ISBN 0-413-68410-5
- Tommasini, Anthony, Filling Out the Callas Legacy (in Spite of Callas), New York Times, February 1, 1998. Accessed 23 December 2008.
- Weinstock, Herbert, Donizetti and the World of Opera in Italy, Paris, and Vienna in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, New York: Pantheon Books, 1963. ISBN 63-13703
- Libretto (Italian)