Poliuto – a rarely seen gem

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Donizetti’s Poliuto gets its UK professional premiere at the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival. But why is it so rarely performed when it’s extraordinary in so many ways?

Photo: 1395 Days Without Red A Film by Anri Sala in collaboration with Liria Bégéja. From a project by Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala in collaboration with Ari Benjamin Meyers. © Anri Sala, Šejla Kamerić, Artangel, SCCA/PRO BA 2011

An important and challenging tenor role

One of the reasons the opera has never become standard repertoire is that the type of tenor who can encompass the many contrasts in the role has been rare.

Poliuto is one of the most important roles ever written for the tenor voice. It infuses an earlier, lighter, 19th-century bel canto style of singing with greater heft and dramatic depth.

For any tenor capable of taking on the enormity of the role, it can be career defining. When Franco Corelli performed it at La Scala in 1960, he was transformed from local sensation to international star.

Corelli’s Paolina for that performance was Maria Callas – quite the A-list partnership.

A tragic tale of love and religious conversion

Poliuto draws on the life of the Christian martyr St Polyeuctus and is adapted from the 17th-century play Polyeucte by the great French Neo-classical tragedian Pierre Corneille.

At its heart Poliuto is a romantic love triangle but with the added dimension of religion.

Persecuted and punished for his conversion to Christianity, Poliuto’s courage is so moving that his wife Paolina, though in love with another man, follows him to his tragic fate.

A significant influence on Verdi

With Poliuto’s highly charged drama and vocal athleticism, Donizetti was drawing on the traditions of French grand opera. In doing so, he paved the way for the work of some of the great Italian romantic opera composers to come, including Verdi.

We can most clearly see that influence in the melody of the famous Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s Aida. It’s almost exactly the same as the melody used in the magnificent Temple Scene at the end of Act II of Poliuto.

So why isn’t it performed more often?

Despite its importance and influence, Poliuto is rarely performed as Donizetti intended it – in its original form and in Italian, its original language.

Perhaps the reason for this lies in the events surrounding the opera’s premiere in Naples in 1838.

The opera was cancelled by royal decree because of objections about the portrayal of martyrs on stage.

Donizetti, incensed, began his career again in France, where he recreated Poliuto as a French opera called Les Martyrs, recently performed in London by Opera Rara under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.

This acclaimed performance of Les Martyrs has further fuelled interest in Glyndebourne’s Poliuto staging, and you can be a part of it too.


Join us this summer for a rare chance to experience this seldom produced masterwork.

For more on the points covered in this blog, listen to our Poliuto podcast presented by BBC Radio 3’s Katie Derham.


Presenter: Katie Derham. Produced by Katherine Godfrey for Whistledown Productions for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival. Music from Poliuto courtesy of EMI Classics (Warner). Music from Verdi’s Aida courtesy of Decca Classics.