Gaetano Donizetti: Poliuto (1848)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.


So I did Gounod’s disastrous Polyeucte, but what of Donizetti’s take on Corneille’s play? Well, there are two settings, the first composed in Italian, the first performed in French, what to do? Why both of course! I got through acts one and two of Les Martyrs but it was too much for me to handle all at once so I decided to complete the Italian original first. The plot is basically the same as the Gounod opera with some differences that I will note. The first act has a totally different setting though, and thankfully there is no sedate on-stage baptismal sequence.

Poliuto is the 1960 La Scala performance with Maria Callas and Franco Corelli, thus it falls into that most sacred of opera series The Holy Callas Collection.


ACT 1: (49 minutes)

0: The overture ** is basically the same as that of Les Martyrs but the ending is slightly different and it is shorter by around a minute. Six minutes in the behind the curtain chorus comes on followed by a slightly less energetic finale (although that galop is rather irresistible).

Scene 1: The entrance of a hidden Christian sanctuary.

9: The opening chorus * of Christians on their way to the baptistry is okay but it obviously has to be sedate in order to not alert any of the Roman authorities, after all they pray for secrecy. A pity.

17: The arrival of Poliuto is much more frustrated than that of Polyeucte but it dies down quickly as he engages in a dialogue with Nearco, a Christian. Poliuto’s prayer * is a mild but pretty piece.

25: La Callas arrives! Evviva La Callas! Salve! Salve! Paolina has followed her husband in secret to the hidden spot. She over hears the Christians as they pray for their persecutors and is moved by this and this prompts her into an aria ** as she contemplates the loveliness of it all. Poliuto and Nearco return and Paolina reveals that she knows all.

30: The confrontational duet that follows his magnificent *** as husband and wife struggle with each other over religious beliefs. Suddenly this is broken up by a Mozart-like voluntary and Nearco comes on to tell them that Severo, Paolina’s supposedly dead ex-lover, is actually alive and arriving in triumph in the city. Paolina is left to contemplate what this all means.

Scene 2: Great Square of Melitene. (Basically the same as the same positioned scene in Polyeucte.)

36: The jubilant interlude ** leads to an extremely Italianate choral number of much the same melody. The orchestral part is a little bit better than the choral part.

41: Severo addresses the people and then thinks of Paolina and her beauty **.

45: The act finale confrontation ** in which Severo greets Paolina’s father Felice, asks where she is, is introduced to Poliuto, and all three men contemplate how horrible the situation is. It is structured around a cabaletta for Severo. The scene ends on a repeat of the choral number that began the scene.

ACT 2: (36 minutes)

Scene 1: The Garden of Felice’s home. (Same positioned scene as in Gounod but the ending is different).

5: After a brief prelude Severo and the priest Callistene discuss an important plot point, namely that Paolina was ordered to marry Poliuto by order of her father. The priest leaves and Paolina arrives and is angrily confronted by Severe who feels put out. Their duet is quiet but pretty **.

9: Paolina responds to his attacks with a mild but agreeable aria * in which she tells him to leave her to grieve their love which now must go unconsummated. The number concludes with a reprisal of the duet tune with the singers in unison.

12: Poliuto’s aria ** in which he uncharacteristically decides that Paolina and Severo are lovers and that he must have revenge on them. However, this is broken by news that Nearco has been arrested by the Romans for his Christianity and so Poliuto puts aside his  plot to kill his wife and Severo and goes off to the temple of Jove to make a demonstration instead.

Scene 2: The temple of Jove. (Obviously this is act 3 Scene 2 of Gounod)

16: A grand orchestral passage leads to a choral multiplex *** as the Armenians gather to worship.

20: Nearco is brought in in chains * and is ordered by Severo to reveal who the important recent convert to Christianity is. Severo threatens to torture him but Poliuto reveals his identity himself.

25, 28, 33: The act finale is at first very lite * with Severo and then Paolina to the most limited of accompaniment (strings). It gets a lot better, and rather modern sounding, sort of like late-Verdi actually ***. Paolina then pleads with both her father and Severo to spare Poliuto’s life, with the latter she even begs him on the basis of the love he still has for her. This infuriates Poliuto and he topples down the idol of Jove just as the stretta begins ***. Poliuto is taken along with Nearco by the guards and Paolina is dragged out of the temple by Felice to a grand concertante finale which isn’t half-way away from that of Aida.

ACT 3: (26 minutes)

Scene 1: A sacred wood near the temple. (No equivalent scene in Gounod nor Les Martyrs). 

3: The chorus is heard off-stage excited about the anti-Christian killing spree but the fixture of the scene is an aria for the pagan high priest Callistene ** in which he tells his priests to fan the hatred of the pagan populous against the Christians (this gets repeated by the chorus of priests).

Scene 2: Poliuto’s cell connected to the amphitheatre. (Act 4 of Gounod, divided into two scenes in Les Martyrs). 

6: A very holy sounding interlude as the scene changes * is followed by Poliuto bombing out and thinks about Paolina in a brief arioso.

8: She arrives *, having bribed the guards, and tells her husband that it was Callistene who plotted to make Poliuto jealous by instigating her meeting with Severo, who she in fact wants dead.

12: The second Paolina-Poliuto duet **. She begs him to give up his beliefs so that he might live. But when she realizes that he will never do this she tells him to baptize her so she can die with him. At first he doesn’t believe her but eventually recognizes that she genuinely means this sudden conversion.

16: The duet changes gears *** as they contemplate eternal life together.

19: Gong! The prison is opened to the amphitheatre where the pagans demand the killing of the Christians. Severo comes to bring Poliuto out and Paolina demands that she is now a Christian too and so must die with her husband. Severo is horrified by this, but it gives us to chance to have one last glorious trio *** before the couple goes to meet their maker to the lovely eternal life refrain and the curtain falls.


La Callas, how can you resist her?!? 


You will have to wait until Les Martyrs for all my comments but I think it wouldn’t be spoiling anything for me to say that I really much prefer Donizetti’s settings of the story of St. Polyeucte than Gounod’s treatment. The Italian original is taunt drama and fast paced and the overture and the three finales are all grand. There are no extraneous characters and Donizetti keeps his leads musically interesting from beginning to end. The only even remotely boring number is the opening chorus! An alpha.

6 responses to “Gaetano Donizetti: Poliuto (1848)”

  1. You like the Holy Callas more than the Holy Grail? (Or the gruelling whole that is Gounod?)


    1. Well, the Callas bit is a comedic exaggeration, I need to make things funny now for my own sanity. Although at least Callas was actually real, the Grail is an utter myth. And Gounod isn’t a whole, he is a hole, but I won’t say where because I’m too much of a gentleman. I’m really getting fed up with Gounod though!


      1. Callas may have started real, but she’s become myth.


      2. Yes, when she lost weight and floated away.


      3. That’s when she became myth-t.


      4. I actually enjoying mocking Callas fans. I know too many of them and she really wasn’t that amazing. I’m glad you liked Poliuto and Ksenija, I was starting to think I was losing my touch.

        The Grail is a Western European myth which is unrecognizable east of Poland. It is based on Christianized tales about Celtic cauldrons. The only interesting thing about Parsifal in that regard is that no one else bothered writing an opera on the subject.


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