A character in a bel canto opera confesses to a crime. Minutes later the character, who is part of a complicated romantic triangle, is executed for that crime.
You've heard this before, and you know that I'm talking about Bellini's great masterpiece Norma. Except, in this case, I am not: I am talking about Donizetti's Poliuto, which was composed in 1838, seven years after Norma.
The Donizetti work is based on Corneille's 1642 play Polyeucte. A plot summary indicates that Cammarano's libretto follows the play closely, but one certainly does have to wonder whether the play was chosen to capitalize on the popularity of Norma. You've got religion, though it's Christianity versus the Roman gods in Poliuto; you've got your love triangle, with Poliuto's wife Paolina caught between her husband and her first love, the Roman general Severo, whom she thought dead. In other words:
Poliuto = Norma
Paolina = Pollione
Severo = Adalgisa
Poliuto isn't performed very often, and after seeing West Edge Opera's semi-staged/mostly-concert version, I can understand why. For the length of the opera, about two hours, there are an awful lot of expensive scene changes, and the exotic location, 3rd c. Armenia, would call for an attempt at the spectacular. The libretto is flimsy, as well; you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia.
HOWEVER, the music is beautiful, with a couple of serious showpieces for Paolina, a great ensemble ending Act II (which here was in the middle of Part II), and excellent trios and duets. The format chosen by West Edge, with the opera divided into two parts rather than three acts (I think the third act of the original must be about 20 minutes long), worked reasonably well, though the big ensemble was obviously an act finale.
But really, the reason you go to hear a piece like this is the singers and the singing. And West Edge Opera had a terrific, fully committed group of soloists. Even reading from their scores, they went at the piece as though their lives depended on it, with thrilling results.
Michael Desnoyers, whom I heard just a couple of weeks ago as the travesty nurse in La Cleopatra, sang Poliuto with heroic spirit and a sweet, well-projected lyric tenor. Another veteran of the same performance, bass-baritone Anders Froelich, made a warlike and passionate Severo. Tenor Michael Jankosky was a fine Nearco, the confidante who brings Poliuto to Christianity. John Bischoff was the sonorous, scheming high priest Callistene, who sets up the final disaster; Sigmund Seigel sang Paolina's father Felice.
And Elizabeth Zharoff was simply spectacular as Paolina, singing in a dark, colorful soprano with hall-filling power and ample flexibility, not to mention a beautifully expressive line.
Jonathan Khuner led the tiny band (a couple of strings and a clarinet) from the piano, with plenty of rubato and spirit.
One performance remains, at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on Wednesday, April 1. Get your tickets now; you'll really want to hear this.
Oh, "Son io!"? That's Poliuto confessing that he is a Christian, shortly before he and Paolina are taken to the arena where lions will tear them to pieces.