Charles Gounod: Polyeucte (1878)

Opera in four acts (1887 version, 23 numbers). Running Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.

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Gounod’s Armenian Parsifal, which unlike Wagner’s opera, totally bombed both with critics, the public, and to a large extent with me as well. It took him the better part of a decade to write, and even included a rewrite when the score itself was held hostage by an English Potiphar’s wife Gounod refused to have an affair with. Gounod was never satisfied with this opera, in fact I don’t think anyone really is satisfied with Polyeucte. Pages 76 and 77 of Opera for Dummies  includes a strange anecdote about how his English landlady saved the score from being burned during one of the composer’s panic attacks. The authors state that she really shouldn’t have bothered with the effort.

SETTING: Melitene, the capital of Armenia, for now in eastern Turkey. Pauline is married to Polyeucte, an Armenian prince with Christian sympathies, although she has done so only on the order of her father Felix, governor of Armenia, as she is in love with the Roman general Severe, whom she believed dead when she married Polyeucte.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zj2qkSxYc6I&t=2570s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1:

Scene 1: Pauline’s chambers with an altar to the household deities. (34.5 minutes)

4: The prelude is starchy, rather non-descript, and even a bit juvenile what with its ornery whirlwind start. It may be just this production, but the brass sound more like that of a high school marching band than a symphony orchestra. It really would just be meaningless filler if the tunes didn’t turn up later. This is followed by a chorus of women * and Pauline’s prayers to the household deities at her home altar. This all has a strangely Mozartean tinge to it although an underling whirlwind dominates. Pauline goes rather mildly into a description of a nightmare she has had for her maid Stratonice, in which her husband has become a Christian and is destroyed by an enraged Jupiter. Polyeucte himself then comes on the scene forlorn.

13: Husband and wife engage in a slow moving and otherwise ornery duet highlighted by passages of arioso first for Pauline * and then Polyeucte. The subject matter is about the mass execution of Christians to take place the following day in honour of the Roman general Severe, who Pauline then explains used to be her lover before she was asked by her father, the governor Felix, to marry Polyeucte, thinking Severe dead. The number continues to bumble along for what feels like a long time although it ends better than it began at least. The scene ends on a dialogue between the couple and Stratonice, ending in some ornery fear from Pauline Listen up for the orchestral conclusion of the scene.

Scene 2:  Public square in Melitene

21: The triumphal march * and chorus that follow are more interesting than anything beforehand, but not really that impressive. It is awkwardly  Meyerbeerian, quoting both the prelude of act 1 at the start and, is that the overture to Dinorah at the end (?) but that would be the highlight as although it is brighter than earlier music in the opera, it is rather starchy.

26: Severe presents the emperor’s felicitations *. It turns into a mild duet with Felix. Pauline comes on and immediately introduces Polyeucte as her husband, which infuriates Severe.

30: A nice, sparkly ensemble **. The best item so far and comes as something of a relief after how boring everything before it has been. The act ends on a bouncy repeat of the triumphal chorus.

ACT 2: (52 minutes)

Scene 1: A Garden and temple of Vesta.

0: A strange choral sequence complete with live birds and celesta *. Innovative, but low key.

3: Severe has adulterous thoughts about Pauline * in a lilting aria. He hides as he hears Pauline approach.

9: Pauline comes on and prays to Vesta * in a rather old fashioned aria, revealing that she married Polyeucte because her father told her to do so.

13: Severe comes out of the shadows at this point and confronts her and the fraudulent marriage she has contracted. She admits that although she did not love Polyeucte at all when they married, she has grown to love him and is afraid that he is now in danger and begs Severe to save him. Their duet has one solidly good tune * but is otherwise rather ornery.

19: The second Pauline-Severe duet is slightly better but still just *. Pauline goes into the temple to pray and Severe conceals himself again as Polyeucte and his Christian friend Nearque come on. The former sees Pauline praying to Vesta and contemplates not converting, but he is led onward by Nearque. Severe now realizes that Polyeucte is joining the Christians; this is the danger Pauline spoke of.

Scene 2: A rocky place.

28: The scene opens with a placid interlude. After about two minutes this is interrupted by the song of a patrician named Sextus *. It is pastoral filler, but not terrible. A holy Christian named Simeon comes on and ushers in the Christians for the baptism of Polyeucte which starts off with a very dull and rather standard religious march. The sacrament is administered amid a lot of boring pseudo-chanting, punctuated by moments of agitation and mild serenity. I’ve been to infant baptisms more interesting than this one. If Gounod had wanted to emphasize the wonderfulness of Christianity, this would have been a good time. Instead it comes off as a hack job in which he plagiarizes the church scene from Faust rather ineffectually.

47: Polyeucte makes his profession of faith *: this is actually rather pretty and with choral support provides a serviceable end to the act.

ACT 3: (41 minutes)

Scene 1: The Grand Hall of Felix’s Palace.

0: The act opens with an oddly fragmentary dialogue * between Felix, Severe, and Albin, the high priest of Jupiter, as they, in the presence of Polyeucte, discuss a new possible mass execution of Christians. Felix wants the people to pay for a new temple to Jupiter, but Severe protests, saying that some would object. Felix demands names, but Severe refuses upon revealing that he has just recently witnessed a baptism. Felix threatens to have the entire family of any Christian executed and leaves.

8: Severe tells Polyeucte to watch out, if not for his own life, then for Pauline **. Polyeucte responses, rather insanely, that he is willing to die. They storm off in opposite directions to a very old fashioned series of battery chords.

Scene 2: The temple of Jupiter.

14: The people praise Jove, although not so tunefully as the festivities in act 1 but now they have the benefit of handbells *.

28: Polyeucte comes on rather angry about all of this, but the ballet starts and stops all the action for 15 minutes. The dances are three in number: Pan (pastorale ending in a mildly triumphal march), Venus (sedate, with a harp/flute counterpoint effect), and a Bacchanal * (the most interesting of the pieces, at least at first while it orgies before going sedate and then a patch of Christian music pops in).

35: The act ends with the High Priest calling a pause to the festivities and then Polyeucte tearing down the statue of Jupiter and declares himself to be a Christian along with Nearque as Pauline and Severe react to the gasps of the others *.

37: In the last four minutes ** of the act more happens than in the entirety of the rest of the opera. Polyeucte is arrested, everyone hates him. Severe can’t figure out what to do, Pauline (very reasonably) is terrified because her father had condemned her husband.

ACT 4: Polyeucte’s prison cell. (24.5 minutes)

1: The brief prelude is a sobering Marche funebre leading into Polyeucte’s Rienzi’s prayer, although it isn’t half as good * although in its own way it blooms and ends on some Faustian holiness.

5: Pauline enters the cell and in the duet that follows (the heart of the act) Pauline gets the most interesting passages *. Polyeucte expresses his desire to convert her to Christianity before he dies the martyrs death.

12: She begs him to recant and flee with her. He refuses and breaks into a clear arioso * which turns into a second duet to a half-way catchy tune.

15: Severe arrives and a trio ensues which has a solid core *. Felix arrives and expresses his rage at his son-in-law. Felix tells him to recant, Polyeucte only expresses his faith more loudly and Pauline pleased with both men for mercy.

21: The finale **: Pauline has a conversion, of sorts, although if she is giving in to her husband out of sheer exhaustion at this point I don’t know. Polyeucte goes into his credo *, Pauline starts to join him, the other two men are left very disturbed. The chorus finishes things as the couple goes off for execution via lions or whatever. More Gounod holy music, curtain.

COMMENTS:

Gounod loved this opera (in spite of the burning attempt), claiming it was a manifesto to the the triumph of Christianity (he was a devout Roman Catholic), but frankly I find myself thinking the term “low-energy” a lot with this opera. Most of it is very boring, similarly to Rimsky-Koraskov’s Servilia, and nothing here can be counted as really very good. A few moments do briefly stand out, but it isn’t enough to salvage the work from oblivion. The applause during the performance is obviously for the performers and not the music. The singers do their best with the material they are saddled with and although entirely Italian, the cast does a good job. The orchestra is not as good and the provincial nature of the production comes out far too often. The plot is very slight and moves at a snails pace. The characters are really not that attractive at all and their motivations are even less understandable. The only two interesting features are the Armenian setting and the fact that it is the male in the marital relationship that is the Christian. However, it is definately a gamma.

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8 thoughts on “Charles Gounod: Polyeucte (1878)

  1. Oh, dear! It’s definitely one of Gounod’s weaker operas, and the Italian-tinged recording doesn’t help. I do, though, like the smashing of the statues.

    Since you’re on a roll with French religious opera, why not do Messaien’s Saint François d’Assise? It’s only 4 1/2 hours. 😉

    (That, by the way, is a joke.)

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    1. It’s rather average for Gounod, yet again I don’t really have a high opinion of him to begin with. Two stars were given for the smashing of the statues. I might do La colombe or Philemon et Baucis next. I thought of doing Donizetti’s Poliuto but I think I need a comedy or two.

      I’ve heard Messaien’s Saint Francois, you couldn’t pay me to review that thing!

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      1. Are there any French recordings of Philemon et Baucis? I’m just finding a 1960 Italian recording with Scotto. I might just go with the Opera Rara of La Colombo, it is just 80 minutes.

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      2. Jean-Claude Orliac (Philémon), Anne-Marie Rodde (Baucis), Pierre Néquecaue (Jupiter) & Felix Giband
        (Vulcain), with the Orchestre Lyrique de l’O.R.T.F. conducted by Henri Gallois, recorded Paris 1975.
        Musidisc “Gaieté Lyrique” 20234-2.

        La Colombe, I guarantee, will be a gamma.

        Why not take a break from Gounod?

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  2. Yeah, I got about seven minutes into Colombe and quite. Thanks for the info on Philemon, I wonder where I can find it. This is so weird because I thought you were steering me in the direction of Gounod and it was the total opposite.

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