Last weekend it was off to the opera at Glyndebourne for me (courtesy of some generous friends) , to see Donizetti’s Poliuto. That’s St Polyeuctos of Armenia to you and me, about whom almost nothing is known, except that he was martyred in the Decian persecutions of the third century -- and he has a famous church in Constantinople.
I hope it doesn’t sound ungrateful if I say that it wasn’t an opera to set the heart zinging in advance (I hadn’t actually heard of it) and it had had some pretty bad reviews for its staging (not for the singing, which was generally agreed to be the tops). But it turned out to be fantastic.
The plot is pretty simple (based on a Corneille tragedy, which – another apology – I haven't read). Poliuto has become a closet Christian, though his wife Paolina has cottoned on. Her life is soon disrupted by the return of the proconsul Severo, with whom she had been in love, She had only married Poliuto because Severo was believed dead on campaign. So she is faced with her Casablanca moment, but though much torn, she decides not to go back to Severo (a keen persecutor of Christians, unsurprisingly) but to stick with Poliuto and become a Christian and die as a martyr with him.
So what about the staging (pictured above, by R Hubert Smith)? It’s all very twentieth century, somewhere a bit indeterminate between Mussolini and Sarajevo, and the stage is dominated by forbidding towers of concrete, which move around to create different spaces (the church, the bedroom etc), and have videos projected onto them. Most critics were decidedly unenthusiastic: “visually dull”, “the incongruity is farcical”, the updating is “the lamest cliché in the book”.
That wasn’t how it came across to me, even though I am usually very down on performances of Greek tragedy (esp. Trojan Women) against backgrounds of barbed wire. The whole plot is so bonkers, I thought it needed just this kind of stylised timelessness. How, I wondered, did the critics want it done? Everyone prancing around in togas?