When Donizetti’s Poliuto was first seen in New York, it was called “the operatic event of the year” – Glyndebourne’s staging of it as the opening production of the 2015 Festival does not exactly merit such fulsome praise, although the singing is as good as even the most severe critic could desire. The trouble is that when you see the tenor Michael Fabiano’s hero sitting in his grey-walled prison, reflecting on a vision of his wife, you can’t help but imagine “Und spur ich, nicht linde, sanft säuseldne Luft?” – and when you hear Fabiano, Ana Maria Martinez and Igor Golovatenko singing at full tilt you just wish they were the Duke, Gilda and Rigoletto. When a work has had only the most minimal of outings 167 years after its premiere, there’s usually a good reason; in this case, it’s that the piece is hardly the composer’s best, and Mariame Clément’s production does not do very much to redeem it.
The central role requires an unusually dark, weighty tenor, and the voice most associated with it in modern terms is that of Corelli: Michael Fabiano may not quite have Corelli’s magisterial phrasing, but he does possess that crucial dark power as well as the required fluency in legato. This was a gripping, heroic performance, as much in its quiet passages as in its assertions of unwavering faith and undying love.
Fabiano was ideally partnered by the Paolina of Ana Maria Martínez, singing with her now-characteristic suppleness of phrasing and subtle understanding of how to present a vulnerable character. It was a pity that she was costumed as Mother of the Bride. Igor Golovatenko formed the third part of this anguished triangle; making his house debut, this young baritone, a member of the Bolshoi ensemble, has everything needed for all the great lyric baritone roles, and it was easy to hear Germont père and Rigoletto in his pliant, burnished tone.
The cast had no weak links, with especially rounded performances from Emanuele D’Aguanno’s Nearco and Timothy Robinson’s Felice, and an all too horribly believable High Priest from Matthew Rose. The chorus sang with as much gusto as the music allows, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave Enrique Mazzola all he asked for in playing of verve and assurance.
The production set the piece against the backdrop of frightened citizens scurrying through the streets and belligerent mobs lusting for the blood of any who dared to forsake the old religion: the director was strongly influenced by a work by the video artist Anri Sala, 1395 days Without Red which evokes the fear which stalked the streets of Sarajevo during the 1993 siege. The resonances with ancient Armenia are obvious, and there is nothing wrong with setting the torments of the main characters against this background, but the whole does not quite come together, partly owing to the over-use of monumental grey slabs which are effective as prison walls but do little to evoke the various other settings.
Should you go? Of course – if only for the ensembles at the close of Acts I and II, and the final duet – and for the experience of a rarity on the stage which, if not exactly a masterpiece, provides plenty of opportunity for exciting singing. You might prefer Fabiano to be pinging away at those B flats at the centre of a different opera, but there’s no denying the attraction of any work which allows such displays of vocal prowess.