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Poliuto is a tragedia lirica, or tragic opera, by Gaetano Donizetti. Salvadore Cammarano wrote the Italian libretto after Pierre Corneille's play Polyeucte (1641-42). It was composed in 1838 and first performed on 30 November 1848 at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples. However, a revised version of the work with a French text had been produced earlier at the Paris Opéra under the title Les Martyrs on 10 April 1840.



By January 1838 Donizetti was in negotiations with the Paris Opéra to compose two new works. While in Venice for the premiere of Maria de Rudenz he had met Adolphe Nourrit, who for more than a decade had been the principal tenor in Paris. However, Nourrit’s popularity was now in decline and he was in danger of being supplanted in the public's affections by a rising star Gilbert Louis Duprez. Nourrit and Donizetti were in complete agreement that a Grand Opera in the style of Halevy's La Juive would exactly suit the tastes of a French audience and provide Nourrit with the ideal vehicle to restore his career.

However, Donizetti's next opera was scheduled to be premiered in Naples, the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose King Ferdinand II was a devout Catholic who refused to allow any representation on the stage of scenes of a religious nature. At the last minute, the King forbade the production. The management of the Teatro di San Carlo were forced to substitute Pia de' Tolomei and Donizetti left immediately for Paris vowing never to have any dealings with Naples in the future. The cancellation dealt a crushing blow to Adolphe Nourrit’s hopes of reviving his flagging career. On 8 March 1839 he committed suicide by jumping from the window of his apartment in Naples. On reaching Paris Donizetti revised and expanded the opera to a French text which was eventually produced as Les Martyrs at the Paris Opera on 10 April 1840. Poliuto was not performed in its original form until after Donizetti's death.


Role (roles in Les martyrs in brackets) Voice type Premiere Cast
(Les martyrs), 10 April 1840
(Conductor: - )[1]
Premiere Cast (Poliuto),
30 November 1848
(Conductor: Antonio Farelli)[2]
Poliuto (Polyeucte), Roman convert to Christianity tenor Gilbert Duprez Carlo Baucardé
Paolina (Pauline) soprano Julie Dorus-Gras Eugenia Tadolini
Severo (Sévère), Roman proconsul baritone Jean-Étienne August Massol Filippo Colini
Felice (Félix), Paolina's father, governor of Armenia tenor
(Les martyrs: bass)
Prosper Dérivis Anafesto Rossi
Callistene (Callisthènes), high priest of Jupiter bass Jacques-Émil Serda Marco Arati
Nearco (Néarque), a Christian, Poliuto's friend tenor Pierre François Wartel Domenico Ceci
A Christian tenor
(Les martyrs: bass)
Second Christian (in Les martyrs only) baritone Wideman


Place: Mytilene
Time: c 259 A.D.

Act 1: The Baptism

Scene 1: The Entrance to a Hidden Sanctuary

Armenia has been conquered by the Romans, and they have decreed that Christianity, which has a significant following in the country, must be destroyed and its followers put to death. Poliuto, the principal magistrate of Mytilene, has come to a secret gathering of worshippers to be baptised into the new faith. He confides to his friend Nearco, who is a fellow convert, that he has misgivings regarding his wife’s loyalty to him. She was in love with a Roman general named Severo and only married Poliuto after pressure from her father, Felice, who told her that Severo and been killed in battle.

Poliuto enters the Sanctuary, and immediately his wife, Paolina, appears. She has followed him, suspecting that he has become a Christian convert. She waits for him to reappear from the baptism and, overhearing the service, finds herself strangely moved by its sincerity and power as the Christians pray for their persecutors. Nearco arrives with the news that not only is Severo still alive but that he intends to root out and destroy every Christian in the land. Paolina experiences both great joy and utter despair on learning that her lover has survived, but acknowledging that now they can never be united.

Scene 2: The Great Square of Mytilene

A jubilant crowd hails the arrival of Severo. He is overjoyed to see Paolina again, but his feelings quickly turn to rage and bitterness when he learns of her marriage to Poliuto.

Act 2: The Neophyte

Scene 1: The gardens of Felice’s house

Severo angrily confronts Paolina. She tries to explain that she was tricked by her father and forced into marriage with Poliuto. Nevertheless she now intends to remain faithful to her husband and insists that Severo leaves her. Poliuto has learned of the meeting between the ex-lovers and is convinced of his wife’s infidelity; however his bitter thoughts of revenge are interrupted by the news that Nearco has been arrested by the Romans for his religious beliefs.

Scene 2: The Temple of Jupiter

Nearco is dragged into the temple in chains. The priests demand to know the name of his important new convert to Christianity. When they threaten Nearco with torture, Poliuto proudly reveals himself as the man they seek. Paolina entreats her father to save her husband’s life, and then throws herself at Severo’s feet, begging him to show mercy for the sake of the love she knows he still has for her. Her actions so enrage Poliuto that he breaks free from his captors and smashes the pagan altar. He is quickly overpowered and led away with Nearco.

Act 3: Martyrdom

In his prison cell, Poliuto awakes from an uneasy sleep. He has had a dream that Paolina is in truth a loyal and faithful wife. She has persuaded the guards to let her visit him, and he forgives her and they are reconciled. Paolina urges him to save himself by renouncing his Christian beliefs, but he is certain that eternal salvation awaits him after death. Recognising the strength of his faith, Paolina begs him to baptize her, so that she can die with him. At first Poliuto is unwilling to perform the baptism, but when he sees that her conversion is genuine, he agrees.

Poliuto is to be fed to the lions, and Severo and his men arrive to take him to the arena. Severo is horrified when Paolina announces that she too is a Christian and demands to die with her husband. Severo urges her to reconsider, but she remains determined to join Poliuto in martyrdom. They are led away together to face their gruesome fate.


Notes and references


  • Harewood, Earl of, and Antony Peattie (eds.), The New Kobbe's Opera Book, London: Ebury Press, 1997. ISBN 0-09-181410-3
  • Holden, Amanda with Nicholas Kenyon and Stephen Walsh (eds.), The Viking Opera Guide, London: Penguin Group, 1993. ISBN 0-670-81292-7
  • Osborne, Charles, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini – Donizetti – Bellini, London: Methuen, 1994. ISBN 0-413-68410-5
  • Tommasini, Anthony, Filling Out the Callas Legacy (in Spite of Callas), New York Times, February 1, 1998. Accessed 23 December 2008.

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