Glyndebourne Festival’s opening is always an exciting date in the calendar. This year it featured the inauguration of a beautiful temporary gallery in collaboration with the progressive dealer, White Cube, and an exhibition of a series of paintings, each of four whirling legs, feet and high-heeled shoes attached, by Georg Baselitz. They are very decorative, even if I did find it difficult to find the musical associations or the “emblematic self-portrait” attributed (or imputed) to them. One non-Baselitzian aspect of the gold-framed pictures: it not only doesn’t matter if you hang them upside down, they can also be rotated 90 degrees in either direction without it making the least difference. They’re slight, unlike the terrific painting by him reproduced on the cover of this year’s Glyndebourne programme.
As for the primary reason we were there, the auguries were good. The sunshine was so brilliant and warm that it lulled people into picnicking boldly in the manicured gardens – where the ragged banana trees should have warned them that it would get chilly as soon as the sun went down. We were about to hear the, as it were, true, original version of a rare Donizetti piece, Poliuto, banned in 1838 by King Ferdinand of Naples, who said images of Christian martyrs belonged in church, not on stage. The next year Donizetti pimped it up to meet the demands of the Paris Opera, where it was staged as Les Martyrs, but Glyndebourne is using the more concentrated and authentic version in the Ashbrook and Parker edition. Poliuto in Italian was revived at La Scala in 1960 (and recorded) with Callas and Franco Corelli, but this version hasn’t been performed here professionally. The production team was promising: Mariame Clément and her designer, Julia Hansen, who gave us Glyndebourne’s splendid 2011 Don Pasquale, with the same conductor, Enrique Mazzola.
My heart sank, though, when I saw that the piece, derived from Polyeucte by Corneille, and set in Roman-ruled Armenia in 257-9 CE, was in modern dress. Once we worked out that the costumes were probably post-War (confirmed by the New Look white coat worn by the heroine at the end of the first half, though the soldiers looked jack-booted and the spies wore trench coats) and saw the red flags waved by the uniformed Roman army and the local populace, the staging evoked associations with our present and recent woes, Islamo-fascism, Ukraine, and the Balkan wars. I thought for a moment that the clever Clément was going to turn the tables on us, and make the Christians the baddies, suicide squad cultists, or at least Maoists to Rome’s orthodox communists.
As the evening went on, it became apparent that she had nothing so coherent as this in mind. The plot of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto is relatively straightforward. Poliuto, a 3rd century Armenian nobleman, married to Paolina, daughter of the Governor, is becoming a secret convert to Christianity. Before their marriage, Paolina was betrothed to Severo, who was thought killed in battle, until he turns up in Armenia as the Roman Proconsul. To Corneille’s plot, Cammarano added the dramatic twist that Poliuto has always been jealous of his wife’s earlier relationship with Severo, so naturally, when the Roman actually comes to town, all hell breaks loose. With the connivance of the nasty, politically minded Callistene, High Priest of Jupiter, Severo orders all the Christians to be killed – the martyrdom that they have all been expecting, perhaps even hoping for.
Poliuto refuses to avail himself of the pardon offered to him if he will deconvert, as he insists his soul is more important than his body. To his surprise, Paolina, who still carries a torch for Severo, is so impressed by his devotion to his new god that she declares herself converted, too, and gladly goes with him to become the lions’ lunch.
As I think you can tell from this summary, probably the only way to subvert this in a 21st century mode is to make the Christians the villains, which runs so contrary to the libretto that the director can only achieve it by treating the many lines about the joys of heaven and the idea of god becoming man as expressions of lunacy (which most of us nowadays, of course, think they are.) It’s a difficult and subtle undertaking, and one that Clément isn’t up to. The alternative is to take the piece at face value and play it straight, as a conflict between faith and reason, religion and politics, or agapé and eros. She doesn’t do that, either.
Designer Hansen’s six textured, grey monoliths whoosh around the stage, providing cover — for the populace to dash about as though avoiding sniper fire — and surfaces for fettFilm’s sometimes fetching projections, none of which lasted long enough to establish a specific location or scene. Setting the confrontation of Severo and Paolina in her bedroom was just plain lazy – and weird. And no director should ever begin a scene or act without music, unless the composer has specified it. In this case it’s cack-handed, and even a touch embarrassing to see members of the chorus scurrying about to little purpose and with evident lack of conviction.
So the production is a bust, and it seems obvious to me that Clément’s real and demonstrated talent is for directing bel canto comedy, and that she ought to leave tragedy well alone. What about the musical side? Judging from the cheers before he even raised his baton, there was a Mazzola claque in the house; but his crisp, enthusiastic dispatch of the score and the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra merited the loud applause and shouts of “bravi” from the seats in the Circle. Much was expected from Michael Fabiano in the dramatic tenor title role, but we got a little too much. He has sung in the small Glyndebourne auditorium before (Alfredo Germont), and he really ought to be able to modulate his dynamics, which went only from ff to fff. He was making a noise more suitable to the New York Met than to the Sussex countryside; and so consistently loud that it was hard to detect the lyrical quality his voice possesses. Ana Maria Martinez, as Paolina, had a silvery edge to her voice, but she dealt with her coloratura passages in a way that was more efficient than dramatic; still, though her voice sometimes lacked deeper colour, it was a first-rate performance. Best of all, though, was Igor Golovatenko’s gorgeous baritone Severo, burnished in tone, and making the most of the score’s celebrated anticipations of Verdi.
Everybody loved the bit of the finale where the chorus of Roman priests sings “Celeste un’aura pel Tempio move” because it has the same familiar melody as Aida’s finale “Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside.” Verdi nicked it from Poliuto: that says something about the quality of Donizetti’s music in this opera, which we have to hope will someday get a production worthy of it.