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Les Martyrs

Les Martyrs (36 page-booklet without libretto)

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This release includes a short booklet with the introductory articles and synopsis (English) but no libretto. The libretto is available to download in PDF format below. A tragic tale of Christian martyrdom,... read more

This release includes a short booklet with the introductory articles and synopsis (English) but no libretto. The libretto is available to download in PDF format below.

A tragic tale of Christian martyrdom, Les Martyrs began its life as Poliuto, Donizetti's Italian opera which - due to its religious content - was banned before its Naples premiere. Greatly angered by the Italian censors' decision, Donizetti moved to Paris in the hope of conquering the Opéra de Paris and securing his status as a composer of international repute. His dream largely came true when, in 1838, he signed an agreement to revise Poliuto for the Paris opera. Working together with Eugène Scribe - the grand opera librettist of the time - Donizetti went to great pains to adapt his Italian opera for Parisian audiences. Not only did he add an obligatory ballet score, but he also composed an elaborate new overture, new solos for the lead tenor and several innovative ensemble scenes. Yet, despite the opera's successful premiere, Les Martyrs soon disappeared from the Paris opera's repertory and since has only received sporadic performances, often in an Italian version. Opera Rara's revival is based on a new critical edition by Dr Flora Willson of King's College, Cambridge, which restores the opera's original French text and reinstates numerous musical passages that have note been heard since its first performance.

Hilary Finch in her five star Times review said: 'The martyred pair — the Christian Polyeucte and his Roman wife and eventual convert Pauline — were cast from strength. Joyce El-Khoury’s soprano flamed fearlessly, but could also taper off into an exquisitely vulnerable half-voice. And the platinum tenor of Michael Spyres focused fanatical love and loyalty: his stratospheric cry within the aria Dieu m’inspire! had both orchestra and audience reeling in thrilled admiration. Two outstanding basses, Brindley Sherratt as Félix and Clive Bayley as Callisthènes, revealed shifting shades of obduracy, while David Kempster’s Sévère painted a stalwart and conflicted portrait.'

Download the libretto here

Les Martyrs is available in download format here.

Joyce El-Khoury (Pauline), Michael Spyres (Polyecute), David Kempster (Sévère), Brindey Sherratt (Félix), Clive Bayley (Callisthènes), Wynne Evans (Néarque), Opera Rara Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Mark Elder - conductor
Act 1 The action takes place in Mélitène, capital of Armenia, under Roman rule during the third century. Persecuted Christians have gathered in the catacombs; among them are Polyeucte, a new convert about to be baptised, and his friend Néarque. As the Christians withdraw to perform their religious rites, Néarque holds Polyeucte back to ask whether he is truly dedicated to the faith. He is, after all, son-in-law of the tyrannical governor Félix, notoriously intolerant of Christianity, and husband of Pauline, who remains a pagan and knows nothing of his conversion. Polyeucte reassures Néarque that “God alone will rule my heart” and looks forward to the day when Pauline will share his new beliefs. Before they can rejoin the Christians, news arrives that Roman troops are nearby. Polyeucte muses that his baptism may yet prove to be a martyrdom, but is determined to proceed. Young Roman girls and slaves appear, bearing accoutrements for a pagan ritual and followed by soldiers. Pauline is in their midst; she dismisses the military escort before paying her respects at the tomb of her mother with a display of sacred offerings. Left alone, Pauline reveals her most intimate thoughts: she is torn between marriage to Polyeucte, chosen for her by her father, and continuing love for Sévère, a courageous Roman general who is believed dead in battle. She overhears the chanting of the Christians nearby as, unbeknown to her, Polyeucte is being baptised. She is about to flee when Christians appear, followed by Polyeucte himself. He is furious that she has stumbled upon them; she is appalled as he defends the Christians. Pauline’s threat to denounce them to her father precipitates Polyeucte’s confession that he is now one of their number. As the Christians pray that Pauline, too, might convert and she hopes that her husband might yet be saved, the act ends with news that a further menace to the Christians – a pitiless proconsul – has just arrived in Mélitène. Act 2 Scene 1 From his study, Félix orders his secretaries to transcribe edicts sentencing Christians to death; his own allegiance to the Roman gods is firm. When Pauline enters, Félix announces that he is issuing a new edict. Pauline, trembling, reads it aloud: all those who have administered or received the rite of baptism will be condemned. As Félix and his staff celebrate the edict’s publication, Pauline privately expresses her anguish. Her father notices her sorrow and asks whether it is caused by unhappiness in love. Pauline replies that she had indeed been happy with Sévère, but that after his presumed death she had accepted the husband chosen for her; she insists that she loves her husband. Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of military music outside; the high priest Callisthènes appears, accompanied by priests, magistrates and citizens, announcing the arrival of the proconsul favoured by the Emperor ever since his narrow escape from death on the battlefield. The revelation that this proconsul is none other than Sévère shocks Félix and Pauline alike; the latter struggles to hide her joy before rushing off. Scene 2 A vast crowd has gathered in the square to watch the proconsul’s arrival. Sévère makes a spectacular entrance in a procession led by Roman legions and standard bearers, surrounded by dancing girls and followed by slaves, pipers and gladiators. He vows to protect the people from the Christian scourge and looks forward to seeing again his beloved. Sévère is treated to a gladiatorial display, followed by Greek and Roman dances. Sévère reveals that the Emperor has offered Armenia as the dowry for whomever he chooses as his wife – and that his heart is set on Pauline. His beloved now appears, but accompanied by Polyeucte, who is announced as her husband. Distraught and angry, Sévère reflects on his lost love. The scene is brought to a climax by the entrance of Callisthènes, who announces that a further baptism has just taken place; the curtain falls as Polyeucte is urged by Pauline to remain silent while the followers of the opposing faiths call on the assistance of divine powers. Act 3 Scene 1 Pauline, alone in her bedroom, prays for assistance. Sévère enters unannounced. In the ensuing duet Pauline implores Sévère to allow her to forget their shared past and leave forever. Lamenting his position, Sévère eventually bids her farewell – leaving just before Polyeucte enters with the news that a great sacrifice is being prepared in honour of Sévère. Pauline asks Polyeucte to accompany her to the ceremony; he refuses, but insists that his love for her is equal only to that he has for his new God. Seeing his wife’s distress, he exclaims that although he can face death, he cannot bear her tears. Félix appears: as Néarque has refused to name his new Christian convert, he will be an additional sacrifice at the temple. Polyeucte now insists that he will attend the ceremony after all and, following Pauline’s and Félix’s departure, vows to share his friend’s fate. Scene 2 Callisthènes and the priests leave the temple with braziers, sacred vases and idols, which they place on its steps; priests and citizens sing a hymn to Jupiter, before Félix, Sévère and Pauline enter for the sacrifice. Néarque is led in and denounced as a Christian before being interrogated again about his new convert; Pauline quakes with terror. Since Néarque refuses to cooperate, Callisthènes proposes to execute him. Just in time, Polyeucte appears and, to the shock of all present, reveals himself to be the mystery neophyte. The scene ends with reactions to this revelation: Félix and Callisthènes are furious, Pauline is desperate; Polyeucte offers renewed affirmations of his faith. Pauline’s appeals to her gods are condemned as futile by her husband; Félix insists that Polyeucte must recognise those gods if he is to be spared. He refuses, adamant that dying a Christian will be his moment of glory. Act 4 Scene 1 Félix is in his private rooms with Pauline, who tries to reason with him: Polyeucte may be a Christian, but he has become a member of their family. The governor refuses to yield: the Emperor himself has condemned Polyeucte and Sévère will carry out his command. Sévère enters, reporting that the people are demanding Polyeucte’s death; he is appalled to see Pauline, who continues initially to appeal to her father. When Félix refuses, Pauline turns to Sévère, begging him, as one who loves her, to help save her husband. Sévère eventually succumbs, agreeing to risk the wrath of the people and the Emperor. Félix remains implacable but repeats that he is willing to pardon the new convert if he rejects his new faith. Still hopeful, Pauline goes to find her husband. Scene 2 In a vault where the condemned await execution, Polyeucte dreams of being united with Pauline in heaven; he implores God to reach out to her. Pauline appears, vowing to save Polyeucte’s life; he insists that he wants to save her soul. Their positions seem irreconcilable until Polyeucte invokes divine intervention. To the sounds of celestial harmony, Pauline sees the light, professing herself seized with Christian zeal, and, to Polyeucte’s joy, declares that she wants to share his fate. As celestial harmony is heard once more, guards appear and attempt unsuccessfully to separate the couple; they exit arm in arm to greet their deaths. Scene 3 A vast amphitheatre teems with spectators awaiting the execution of the Christians. Félix, his bodyguards, Sévère, Callisthènes and the priests enter. Callisthènes urges immediate action; Félix confides to Sévère that Pauline has not yet returned, but cedes to Callisthènes’ impatience, ordering that the Christians be fed to the lions. To Félix’s and Sévère’s horror, Pauline accompanies Polyeucte into the arena, insisting that she will die both as a dutiful wife and as a Christian. Sévère begs her to consider her father; the couple respond that they will be united in heaven. Néarque and other Christians are brought in. In a final confrontation, the priests vow death to the impious, while Pauline, Polyeucte, Néarque and the other martyrs affirm their readiness to die. Sévère tries to save Pauline, but is held back by guards; as the lions are released from their enclosures, Félix falls faint. The Christians drop to their knees and Pauline throws herself into her husband’s arms; Polyeucte alone remains standing. The curtain falls as the lions make their approach.