Michael Fabiano (Poliuto) and Ana Maria Martinez (Paolina) in rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival 2015)
Michael Fabiano (Poliuto) and Ana Maria Martínez (Paolina) in rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival 2015)
© Richard Hubert Smith

If it's good enough for Maria Callas it's good enough for Glyndebourne. Donizetti's opera Poliuto languished in semi-neglect for over a century (although the great tenor Beniamino Gigli essayed the title role at La Scala, Milan in 1940) until, in 1960, Franco Corelli and Callas gave a run of five performances, also at La Scala. The first of these was recorded for posterity, issued on LPs by EMI, and the die was cast. But I'll bet you've never seen it.

Some of us have heard it, though, or most of it, in its Parisian guise as Les Martyrs. That Opera Rara performance last year at the Royal Festival Hall, now also released on disc, runs for 80 minutes longer than the Italian original thanks to some obligatory Parisian bloating (extended dances, bombastic ceremonies) and restructuring; yet musically the two operas are recognisably the same work: an adaptation of Corneille's play Polyeucte.

Poliuto is a love triangle with lions — real ones in some earlier productions, though possibly not at Glyndebourne — that's contained within a political tale of Romans versus Christians.

"It's an unlucky opera," explains the production's conductor, Donizetti specialist Enrique Mazzola. "Sometimes operas that were not a success on their opening night were judged to be weak, maybe because they were given a bad performance. In the case of Poliuto, though, we have an opera that was never even born." (The Italian censors refused to countenance an entertainment that depicted Christians being sacrificed to lions.)

"I'm not convinced that the most famous operas are always the best ones; it's just that we're used to hearing them. When we listen to a familiar melody, we forget that we may not have liked it the first time but we came round to it on the second, third or fourth hearing.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola in discussion with Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival Opera)
Conductor Enrique Mazzola in discussion with Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival 2015)
© Richard Hubert Smith

"We're not able to compare the quality of an aria we know very well with the quality of one we hear for the first time. Lucia di Lammermoor is not necessarily more beautiful than Poliuto, but it's had more luck."

Poliuto opened the door to later political and religious operas, especially those that Verdi would later compose such as Nabucco, Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra, but unlike them it was written in a pure spirit of bel canto.

"It's the quintessence," agrees Mazzola. "If Rossini's Guillaume Tell marked the start of bel canto and La traviata marked its end, with Poliuto we are deep inside it. Donizetti speaks through bel canto — his characters express themselves through magnificent lines. The beauty arises more through the music than the words. In real bel canto the words are servants to the music, especially the arias. Of course we need action as well, and recitatives are the engine whereby singers make the plot move and give it its energy."

For soprano Ana Maria Martínez, who sings the key character of Paolina alongside American tenor Michael Fabiano in the title role, the opera's a gift. "It's gorgeous bel canto. It required depth and heft but there has to be this inner life from within and beyond. The role of Paolina is very demanding for the soprano because she has to sing above such huge ensembles. Happily, my other heavier roles have helped me prepared for it: Butterfly, Rusalka, Luisa Miller, Marguerite [in Faust].

Martínez has clearly thought deeply about her character, for when I suggest that Paolina's eventual conversion to Christianity is cheaply bought by Donizetti and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, she has a startling riposte.

"She has no choice but to go to her death"

"Paolina's thought processes are quite angular. I think she's repressing a lot of inner feelings from her past that we later discover she'd had to put aside in order to survive, and it dawns on her that these issues never go away. You can't sweep them under the rug, you have to face them.

"As I connect the thread of her thinking it strikes me she could be bipolar; and I wonder if her choice at the end is somewhat impulsive. Either that or it's been happening little by little and finally she gives in.

Igor Golovatenko (Severo) and Ana Maria Martinez (Paolina) with director Mariame Clément in rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival 2015)
Igor Golovatenko (Severo) and Ana Maria Martínez (Paolina) with director Mariame Clément in rehearsals for Poliuto (Glyndebourne Festival 2015)
© Richard Hubert Smith

"I think she has no choice but to go to her death. Her husband is about to be executed by her former lover, Severo, whom she'd previously thought to have perished — the man she herself would have married, rather than Poliuto, if she'd known he was still alive!

"Her moral standards are high and her inner conflicts are tremendous. She's overcome by guilt and she probably has no inner peace whatsoever. So when she realises that Poliuto is going to be sentenced to death by Severo, she concludes 'I'm going to live, he's going to die, and I'll be seeing Severo every day yet I can't have him. Death is better.'

"So I don't really know if it's a true conversion."

Mazzola, for his part, is fully convinced by the opera's dramatic structure. "Don't forget that in Italian opera there are always conflicts of faith, love and power, and these are always stronger than any possible plot.

"It's about politics, and it's still relevant today. We hear more and more about religion in politics — or the opposite — and, unfortunately, the use of religion for political reasons.

"Remember that a united Italy was still some way in the future when Poliuto was written. That didn't happen until 1861. But the romanticism of Italian opera spoke of power, politics, love, violence, vengeance... and it also encouraged a sentiment of unity. Early romanticism shook the Italian public to wake up and live for passion and ideas."

On this awayday at a sunny, sparsely populated, pre-festival Glyndebourne, my arrival and departure were serenaded from the auditorium by the Glyndebourne Chorus in gloriously full voice, a timely reminder that Poliuto is a stirring epic that's loaded with melodic delights. A bona fide masterpiece? From top to tail, I'd say. It's time we all cottoned on.

Donizetti's Poliuto opens at Glyndebourne on 21 May and runs in repertoire until 15 July.