Donizetti: Les Martyrs

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Donizetti
LABELS: Opera Rara
WORKS: Les Martyrs
PERFORMER: Michael Spyres, Joyce El-Khoury, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, Wynne Evans; Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Mark Elder


Les Martyrs is one of Donizetti’s later, serious operas, and has a complex history. Its original version is in Italian and is called Poliuto, a rarity which was revived at La Scala for soprano Maria Callas, with tenor Franco Corelli. A recording of that production is available on EMI (now Warner), and well worth having despite mediocre sound. The opera was banned in Italy since it deals with Christians being martyred, a subject about which the French were less squeamish; so Donizetti extensively revived it for Paris, in French, and with the addition of much new material. This is the first commercial recording of this version, though the great Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer can be heard in two live ‘private’ recordings.

Mark Elder conducts with all the fervour of the late convert, eliciting from his admirable singers and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment a reading of great intensity and refinement. The recording is primarily a team effort: fine though the singers are, there are no sensational stars, such as Donizetti would have expected. That means that the opera comes across in a slightly subdued way, without the heroics that Corelli could produce or the pathos of Callas. It is, as one expects from Opera Rara, exemplary in its presentation, with full libretto in Italian and English and helpful notes. I can’t envisage a rival for many years to come.


Michael Tanner