For the second time in two months, I’ve been utterly blown away by a singer that I’ve never heard before. Last month, it was a tenor, Luciano Ganci; this time, it was the turn of a baritone: Igor Golovatenko, singing the part of Severo in Donizetti’s Poliuto, on the first night of this year’s Glyndebourne Festival. Golovatenko simply had it all: creamy smooth timbre, perfect intonation, plenty of power, continually interesting phrasing, good interaction with other singers and, most of all, the ability to inject character and emotion into every vocal twist.

Igor Golovatenko (Severo) and Matthew Rose (Callistene) © Tristram Kenton
Igor Golovatenko (Severo) and Matthew Rose (Callistene)
© Tristram Kenton

Poliuto, based on a Pierre Corneille play set in Armenia in the days of the early Christian martyrs, has had a chequered history, to say the least. Conceived as a vehicle to revive the fortunes of French tenor Adolphe Nourrit, it was strangled at birth by the royal family at Naples, who decreed that saints and martyrs were a subject for the church and not the opera house. It reappeared as Les Martyrs in Paris, now transformed into a five act grand opera, to return to Italy in back-translated form as I Martiri. The original, reconstructed as best we can, has not been often performed.

Last night’s production showed that this is a welcome return. The plot is effective: Paolina's first love, the Roman proconsul Severo, was thought to have been killed in battle, after which Paolina was coerced into marrying another man. This is Poliuto, who, as the opera opens, converts to Christianity, an action which carries a death sentence. A Roman general arrives, charged with suppressing Christianity and restoring order: this is none other than Severo, who is horrified to discover that his dreams of wedded bliss with Paolina have been shattered. Things get worse from there, with a high point at the end of Act II where, in typical Corneille style, all the characters have been put into utterly intractable circumstances, for which Donizetti produces a blistering sextet. The style of the opera points firmly at Verdi, with flexible use of the recitative/aria form, some wonderful duets and trios, and a score that includes effective passages of religious choral material.

Michael Fabiano (Poliuto) and Ana María Martínez (Paolina) © Tristram Kenton
Michael Fabiano (Poliuto) and Ana María Martínez (Paolina)
© Tristram Kenton

The two lead roles, Michael Fabiano as Poliuto and Ana María Martínez as Paolina, were generally well sung, if not quite up to the level of Golovatenko's thrilling performance. Fabiano has a basically attractive voice and a good feel for his character, but may have misjudged the size of the hall: he was pushing his voice far too hard, resulting both in a loss of quality of the timbre in his upper register, and in being simply too loud by comparison with the orchestra and other singers. Martínez has a burnished, dark timbre which suited the part quite beautifully: she also put plenty of emotion into the role, again in a rather Verdian way, my one cavil being a touch too much vibrato which made her intonation sound less secure than it probably was. Matthew Rose gave a solid, gravelly performance as the true villain of the piece, the high priest Callistene.

In the programme notes, Mariame Clément states that her staging was trying to be "more modern and undefined, something that would remind us of persecution and fear as we recognise it today". It's a noble ambition, and I could see plenty of evidence of the attempt, but the staging misfired in many ways. A series of floor-to-ceiling concrete blocks were constantly in motion around the stage to create different rooms or streets, which worked effectively but made for a visually drab, monochrome production, made the more dull by the fact that all the people moved only in two dimensions on a level stage. Costumes were anything but undefined: the Roman soldiers' uniforms were clearly World War II Nazi without the insignia, while the women in the anti-Christian mob wore headscarves (and, bizarrely, a not-quite-uniform pink).

Matthew Rose (Callistene) © Tristram Kenton
Matthew Rose (Callistene)
© Tristram Kenton

Video projections were effective when adding a splash of feature (a chandelier to denote the inside of a palace, or a shot of the arena in which the Christians are to be thrown to the lions), but the idea that whenever the music got a bit emotional, it would be good to project footage of storm clouds over a turbulent sea, was just embarrassing. Direction of actors was short on attention to detail, a series of misfires exemplified by a woefully limp slap in the face administered by Martínez.

From a rather leaden start (which didn't help things when combined with a grey staging), the orchestral performance improved as the evening progressed. Enrique Mazzola finally hit his stride in Poluto's Act II aria "Cessa fatal consiglio" and provided some superb ensemble numbers.

This production definitely marked Poliuto as an opera that I'm happy to see coming back into the repertoire, and this production is a winner for its singing alone. And Igor Golovatenko has just gone straight to the top of my “grab the chance to see this one whenever you can” list.