Polyeucte, UC Opera, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, March 2018

Every year UCL produces a little known operatic gem and this time it was the turn of Gounod’s Polyeucte, not previously staged in the UK.

Pauline in the opening scene, all images UCOpera/ Teo Della Torre

The story, based on a play of the same name by the 17th century playwright Pierre Corneille, was the basis for Donizetti’s Poliuto, later turned into a French opera as Les Martyrs. It concerns the martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus, an Armenian nobleman killed by the Romans after converting to Christianity and desecrating a Roman temple. His wife Pauline, daughter of the Roman Proconsul, is conflicted in wanting to stay with him yet urging against joining the Christians. So is her ex-lover, the Roman general Sévère, recently arrived in Armenia, who is unable to re-ignite their previous love. She stays faithful to her husband, and in the end joins him in death, facing the lions in the arena.

Polyeucte accepts Christianity

A bold opera, incorporating processional marches and ballets, it never won over audiences more interested in love affairs and high drama than Christian martyrdom. But in this excellent staging by director Thomas Guthrie the extraneous theatrics are abandoned and human relationships come to the forefront, helped by Raphaé Memon’s fine minimalist designs and well lit by Alex Forey. No lions of course, and the final death of Polyeucte and Pauline was undertaken in shocking Daesh style. That aside this was a terrific performance under music director Charles Peebles. The UCL students produced energetic playing and super crescendos, and I loved the oboe obbligato during Polyeucte’s anguished Act IV solo.

Pauline and Polyeucte, Sévère behind

The four professional singers in principal roles gave fine performances, none more so than Flora McIntosh as Pauline. Showing power and passion throughout with a lovely vocal tone she was the most compelling character on stage. Luke Sinclair as Polyeucte sang strongly and conveyed great determination after an uncertain start, Jan Capinski exhibited fine emotional turmoil as Sévère, and John Mackenzie added excellent gravitas as the Roman Proconsul Félix. The student chorus was super, particularly in their role as Christians, and all the soloists gave convincing performances: Fabian Helmrich sang engagingly as Polyeucte’s friend Néarque, Helen Hughson was a beautifully voiced Stratonice (Pauline’s confidante), Stephen Esiri provided a dramatic portrayal of Félix’s confidant Albin, Michael TK Lam sang well as the young Roman Sextus, and I loved Michael Scott in the cameo role of the aged Christian Simeon.

Altogether a wonderful performance of this little-known Gounod opera with a text by Barbier and Carré, who also wrote the libretto for his far more famous Roméo et Juliette. If you love the discovery of unfamiliar opera gems this is not to be missed.

Performances continue on March 21, 23, 24 — for details click here.

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