Donizetti was one of the most prolific opera composers of all time, an appealingly personable fellow (if you read the letters), and an extraordinary professional capable of turning out a work in just a few weeks. That very facility though has led to a general dismissal of his music as too easy, rushed, derivative, or worse. Les Martyrs disproves all of these.

A late work (1840), this grandest of his French grand operas was written simultaneously with the slighter, yet inexplicably more popular La Fille du Régiment, but the two works couldn’t be more different – one a trivially sucrose French confection, the other a profound meditation on faith and duty. But while Daughter of the Regiment went on to conquer the world, Les Martyrs sank without a trace.

That latter statement isn’t entirely true. Les Martyrs was itself an expanded reworking of Poliuto, an opera Donizetti had written for Naples that fell foul of the censors and so never made it to the stage. Poliuto has been championed intermittently over the years (there’s a superb live version with Callas, Corelli and Bastianini) and Glyndebourne have just given its British premiere, but Les Martyrs is a horse of a different colour.

“If you appreciate the full panopoly of French grand opera, Les Martyrs is the one for you”

First of all it’s longer. Over an hour longer! There are those who will prefer the dramatic tautness of Poliuto, but if you appreciate the full panoply of French grand opera, Les Martyrs is the one for you – not just for the added pomp and circumstance, but also because the characters are given more room to breathe and thus come to life in richer colours.

The plot is simple. Polyeucte converts to Christianity to the horror of his wife Pauline. Her father Félix is Governor of Armenia charged with wiping out heretics and he has the lions to do it. The surprise arrival of the Proconsul Sévère, Pauline’s former lover and Christian-hunter extraordinaire, sets the cat among the pigeons as she is forced to consider loyalties to heart, home and faith.

The cast that Opera Rara has assembled for this production is unbeatable. Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline is deeply committed and sings with radiant charm in a wide-ranging and demanding role. Michael Spyres is an ardent Polyeucte (with a top E plucked out of nowhere!). David Kempster and Brindley Sherratt as Sévère and Félix are both magnificent, the latter especially so as Les Martyrs dramatically expands the role of Pauline’s father. Sir Mark Elder brings out every musical and dramatic nuance, conducting a top-form Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (yes, it’s HIP Donizetti) as well as a fine chorus. Stunning sound, stunning presentation. Stunning!

Q&A: Joyce El-Khoury

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