Until last weekend, I hadn’t thought of operas falling in and out of fashion.
Courtesy of a very kind friend, I was at Glyndebourne – that bastion of quintessential Englishness – for a performance of Poliuto. It’s not exactly in the regular canon of works and expressions such as “neglected”, “unfamiliar” and “rarely heard” have appeared in reviews.
It seems to have fallen out of favour at some point in the second-half of the nineteenth century and productions have been thin on the ground since about 1870. On the way to Glyndebourne, we were trying to work out why this has happened and speculated that the musical style might be to blame. By the interval, we were pretty sure it wasn’t that and the provisional verdict was confirmed by the final act.
The story is set in third century Armenia, where Christianity is taking root and starting to challenge traditional worship of the Roman gods. Poliuto converts to Christianity and is sentenced to death. At the same time (and this being opera), his wife’s former lover, Severo, returns to Armenia; she married Poliuto when she thought her lover was dead. Severo has high hopes that he and Paolina can be together again, but Paolina is inspired by her husband’s faith and converts to Christianity. In spite of Severo’s efforts, Paolina follows Poliuto and they die together.
Third-century Armenia is random and unfamiliar as a setting, but no more so than the backdrop of many other operas. There was violent death, but that’s hardly new in opera and the body-count was decidedly modest.
However, denunciation of Christianity – or, for that matter, any religion – felt an uncomfortable topic for an opera and uncomfortable to watch. Oddly, I could imagine watching the same storyline in a theatre play, but opera didn’t feel like the right medium for it.
Only parts of the production generated this feeling of disquiet and I should make it clear that I wasn’t looking for light entertainment and I was thrilled to have seen the production. But we were looking in the wrong place for an explanation of Poliuto’s disappearance from the repertoire. I’d say that it’s subject-matter, rather than musical style, that’s the reason it’s fallen out of fashion.