Review: Polyeucte

The annual act of heroism that is University College Opera again delivered the goods. Resurrecting Gounod's Polyeucte (premiered in 1878) at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East was no more abstruse than much UCO work; though this late-ish opera doesn't appear in the Penguin Opera Guide, it was reputedly the composer's favourite. It's the same story as Donizetti's Poliuto, done as Second Empire Grand Opera — with everything that implies in the way of freakily mixed motives. Its failure was probably due to the passing (with that comic-opera empire) of the fad for this literally meretricious format.

Palpitating exultation: Flora McIntosh as Pauline and Polyeucte (Luke Sinclair)
Photo by: Teo Della Torre

Still, all Gounod's calling cards are in place: the fervour, the tremulousness, the throbbing, upwardly-modulating duets reaching peaks of emotionalism, the sort-of devotional hymns. Charles Peebles got astonishing sounds out of his mixed-ability orchestra, the chorus (generally being bloodthirsty Romans) were duly fervid, and the leads all up to the challenge — especially Flora McIntosh's rather astonishing Pauline. This is a really serious mezzo voice, bursting with focused passion, bringing much colour to a rather compromised heroine. This may not be the sexiest of works, despite its central love-triangle, but McIntosh invested it with considerable force. Her two boyfriends, Jan Capiński (Sévère) and Luke Sinclair (Polyeucte), were not far behind, and Gounod's expertise in creating a sort of palpitating exultation as Christianity triumphs (via being a lion's supper) is cannily manipulative, producing the required shivers. Polyeucte covers a lot of musical, atmospheric and scenic ground, and Peebles and director Thomas Guthrie produced a memorable evening of great ambition and the kind of gutsy, wholehearted fulfilment UCO produces year after year.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Thicknesse

Published in Opera Now, May 2018

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