Gounod: Polyeucte / Benzi, Casciarri, Vezzu, Grassi, Zhelev

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There is much to enjoy in this forgotten (save for an aria or two), late (1878) Gounod opera. Essentially the same story as Donizetti's Poliuto, its title character is a convert to Christianity under the Romans, and his wife Pauline tries to protect him. The Emperor's envoy, Sévère, still loves Pauline, to whom he was once betrothed--but despite his hatred of Christians, Sévère is noble and tries to save Polyeucte. But the latter insists on making a public scene denouncing idols, and at the end, along with Pauline "who has been converted by the grace of God", goes to his death in the public arena. Aside from a sappy baptism scene the likes of which would make the Massenet of Thaïs blush with shame, the opera is tuneful, with exciting arias and duets and an ensemble or two, although none of it remains very long in the memory.

This performance, taped live at the Martina Franca Festival in 2004, is strong. Best is Luca Grassi as Sévère, who despite his name sounds like a French baritone. His voice is supple but a bit tight on top, and he throws himself into his sympathetic role with passion. Pauline is sung by soprano Nadia Vezzu, who's quite tentative at first but gains in stature as the opera goes on. Tenor Giorgio Casciarri offers a virile, secure sound as Polyeucte, and he shines in his emotion-filled outburst in the Roman Temple in Act 3 and in his fine fourth-act aria. It's a long role and he rises to the occasion. In the pastoral setting for the baptism, Gounod throws in a nice little aria for a minor character named Sextus, extolling the non-Christian gods; it is prettily sung by tenor Nicolo Amodio.

Conductor Manilo Benzi leads his forces well, and ensemble work is admirable; Gounod's scoring is quite handsome and Benzi makes whatever points he can. There's a bit too much that is pageant/oratorio-like in this work, but there's also some juicy operatic singing that pleases. Recommended particularly for French opera enthusiasts.

--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Reviewing original release of this recording

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: DYN-CDS7655

  • UPC: 8007144676551

  • Label: Dynamic

  • Composer: Charles Gounod

  • Conductor: Manlio Benzi

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bratislava Chamber Chorus, Italian International Orchestra

  • Performer: Emile Zhelev, Fernando Blanco, Giorgio Casciarri, Luca Grassi, Nadia Vezzù, Nicola Amodio, Pietro Naviglio, Tiziana Portoghese, Vincenzo Taormina