Polyeucte (French pronunciation: [pɔliœkt]) is an opéra by Charles Gounod based on the play about Saint Polyeuctus by Pierre Corneille. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré is more faithful to its source than Les martyrs, Scribe's adaptation for Donizetti, and Gounod hoped to express "the unknown and irresistible powers that Christianity has spread among humanity". The subject had occupied Gounod for some ten years. An initial delay was caused by a fire which destroyed the theatre of the Paris Opéra, the Salle Le Peletier, in October 1873. Further delay came about because the first draft remained in the hands of the jealous Georgina Weldon when Gounod left England in 1874 to return to Paris. He had to resort to a lawsuit before resigning himself to recomposing the work from memory, although towards the end of that endeavor, Weldon did return it.
The opera finally premiered at the Opéra's new house, the Palais Garnier on 7 October 1878, in stage sets designed by Jean Émile Daran (Act I), Louis Chéret (Act II), Auguste-Alfred Rubé and Philippe Chaperon (Act III), Eugène Louis Carpezat and Antoine Lavastre (Act IV), and Jean-Baptiste Lavastre (Act V). Despite the splendid staging, the premiere was a failure – "the sorrow of my life," noted Gounod  – and closed after 29 performances. Polyeucte's aria "Source délicieuse" is sometimes heard in concert.
A 2004 co-production by Jean-Louis Pichon was seen that year in Martina Franca, then in 2006 in Saint-Etienne conducted by Laurent Campellone and Jean-Pierre Furlan in the title role.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 7 October 1878
(Conductor: Charles Lamoureux)
|Polyeucte, an Armenian noble, son-in-law to Félix||tenor||Marius Salomon|
|Sévère (Severus), a Roman Knight, favourite of the Emperor Decius||baritone||Jean Lassalle|
|Félix, Governor of Armenia||bass||Charles Bérardi|
|Néarque (Nearchus), an Armenian noble, friend to Polyeucte||baritone||Numa Auguez|
|Albin, friend to Félix||bass||George-François Menu|
|Siméon, an aged Christian.||bass||Eugène Bataille|
|Sextus, a young patrician||tenor||Jules-Alexandre Bosquin|
|Pauline, daughter to Félix, wife to Polyeucte||soprano||Gabrielle Krauss|
|Stratonice, companion to Pauline||mezzo-soprano||Caldéron|
|Guards, Roman soldiers, priests, Christians, ladies-in-waiting, servants, populace|
- Place: Melitene, the capital of ancient Armenia
- Time: 3rd century AD
The subject is taken from Corneille's tragedy. The story, however, has here been somewhat differently treated. Félix, Proconsul of Armenia, has a daughter Pauline, who was at one time sought in marriage by the Roman general Sévère. Circumstances divided them, and Pauline gave her heart to Polyeucte, an Armenian Prince. At the opening the Christian faith is being propagated in Melitene, and Polyeucte has listened with a willing ear to the teachings of the new creed. Naturally the converts are subject to persecution, and a butchering is anticipated, when Sévère, who is approaching Melitene, after a successful campaign, enters in triumph.
Pauline's chamber, with its private altar and its "household gods"
Pauline and her servants, Stratonice at their head, are in the room, while the mistress meditates before the altar. In answer to Stratonice, Pauline explains her melancholy by reference to a dream presaging evil; she says that she has seen Polyeucte bowing before Christian altars, and destroyed by the vengeance of Jove. However, he comes back, looking sad and oppressed, and his wife, demanding the reason, learns that certain Christians are doomed to death on the morrow. Pauline attempts to justify the sacrifice, but Polyeucte in return so manifests his sympathy with the victims, that her worst anticipations are realised, and she makes a passionate appeal, when Polyeucte reassures her, and speaks of the coming of Sévère, in whose honour the Christians are to perish. Pauline thought Sévère to be dead, and explains to her husband the relation in which they formerly stood. But Polyeucte has no fear of the meeting.
A public place in Melitene
An enthusiastic crowd awaits the victorious general, who is welcomed by Félix. Sévère assures the governor that he has brought with him fond remembrances, but Pauline at once defines the actual situation by introducing Polyeucte as her husband. The blow strikes home, and all present notice the agitation it causes.
A garden and a temple of Vesta
Sévère appears, despising his glory, since he cannot lay it at Pauline's feet. He observes the approach of Pauline, stands aside, and the heroine enters, kneels down, and prays, and in the course of her prayer reveals that she had wedded Polyeucte in obedience to the wishes of her father; this Sévère overhears. When therefore she rises, he confronts her, and reproaches her with having accepted a "detested spouse." Pauline denies it. Once more the love-lorn warrior falls into despair, and she demands why he had come to trouble her. Sévère invokes the goddess to witness their past love, and calls upon his companion to carry her prayers to the feet of Vesta. Pauline accepts the challenge, beseeching that the broken heart of Sévère might be healed, and that he himself might become the saviour of her husband. To the astonished exclamation of the soldier she replies that Polyeucte is in danger, and that she confides in him to preserve his life. Another appeal follows, this time with instant success. The interview over, Pauline retires to the temple, but Sévère remains, presently again concealing himself as Polyeucte enters, accompanied by the Christian Néarque. The Prince, seeing Pauline in the temple, is inclined to linger, but Néarque urges him away, and Sévère hears all.
A private spot in the midst of rocks and trees
Polyeucte becomes a Christian.
In a hall of the palace
Polyeucte, Félix, Sévère, and Albin, High Priest of Jupiter, are present. They begin to talk about the Christians, upon whom Félix calls for vengeance; but Sévère protests. On this Félix bids all to repair to the temple of Jupiter, but Sévère warns him that noble heads may have to fall; and when Félix answers that the believers are the dregs of the people, reveals that he himself has witnessed the baptism of one equal to any then present. The Governor demands the convert's name, and, not obtaining it, declares that he will condemn the whole family to death, should they turn from the orthodox creed. Sévère urges Polyeucte to guard his own life for the sake of those he loved, but the convert professes himself willing to die.
Polyeucte is seen in prison, still adhering to his faith.
Polyeucte and Pauline appear in the arena, where we see the lion's den opened by an official. The opera ends.
- Huebner 1990, p. 215.
- Huebner 1990, p. 217.
- Harding 1973, p. 199.
- Kasow, Joel, "Report from Saint Etienne", Opera, August 2006, Vol 57 No 8, p932-3.
- Cast last names are from Huebner 1990, p. 300, and Wolff 1962, p. 175. Full names, when available, are from articles on individual singers in Kutsch & Riemens 2003, including Marius Salomon (p. 4110), Jean Lassalle (p. 2624), Charles Berardi (p. 353), Numa Auguez (p. 176), George-François Menu (p. 3075), Eugène Bataille (p. 280), Jules-Alexandre Bosquin (p. 532), Gaspard (p. 1655), and Gabrielle Krauss (pp. 2501–2502).
- Wolff 1962, p. 175.
- Alexander 1881, p. 67.
- Alexander, Louis (1881). The Opera-Glass: or, A Clear View of 100 Popular Operas. London: David Bogue. View at Google Books.
- Harding, James (1973). Gounod. New York: Stein & Day. ISBN 978-0-306-79712-5.
- Huebner, Steven (1990). The Operas of Gounod Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-315329-5 (hardcover); ISBN 978-0-19-816348-0 (paperback).
- Kutsch, K. J.; Riemens, Leo (2003). Grosses Sängerlexikon (fourth edition, in German). Munich: K. G. Saur. ISBN 978-3-598-11598-1.
- Wolff, Stéphane (1962). L'Opéra au Palais Garnier (1875–1962). Paris: Deposé au journal L'Entr'acte OCLC 7068320, 460748195. Paris: Slatkine (1983 reprint). ISBN 978-2-05-000214-2.