Gaetano Donizetti - L'assedio di Calais
English Touring Opera, 2015
Jeremy Silver, James Conway, Craig Smith, Paula Sides, Catherine Carby, Matthew Stiff, Andrew Glover, Ronan Busfield, Matt RJ Ward, Jan Capinski, Peter Braithwaite, Nicholas Merrywether
Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert - 29 June 2015
One of the rarer works in the Donizetti catalogue but certainly not a lesser one, L'assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) was written to appeal to the Paris Opera and has certain Grand Opera characteristics that set it apart from most of the composer's other works. The opera didn't reach Paris, although Donizetti would have success there later with Les Martyrs and La Favorite, L'assedio di Calais opening instead at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1836. Despite its undoubted qualities, the work still had some problems that Donizetti himself was displeased with, but even though it was later revised down from three acts to two, L'assedio di Calais soon vanished and wasn't performed after 1840.
Reviving this rare work, the English Touring Opera then wisely opted for the two-act version of L'assedio di Calais which has some of the dropped third act elements worked in. James Conway's production was well received when it toured the UK in 2013 and it was revived in 2015 and selected as one of the productions for this year's 2015 Armel Opera Festival competition. The work was acclaimed for its music in the first two acts, and based on this performance, rightly so. Donizetti's music is characteristically melodic, but additionally concise and dramatic here, the usual jauntiness of the composer's rhythms taking on a more sober, sombre tone in accordance with its subject.
The action takes place in 1346, at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. At the beginning of the revised opera, the English soldiers led by King Edward III (Edoardo), are becoming frustrated with their siege of the city of Calais. The city however is close to breaking point. The mayor Eustachio is deeply concerned for the citizens of Calais as well as for the fate of his own son Aurelio who is believed lost in an incursion against the English. Aurelio's wife Eleonora, joins him in a lament (beautifully sung by Craig Smith and Paula Sides) that turns to joy when news comes that Aurelio is alive.
Their joy is short-lived. "Let us not get caught up in sentimentality", Aurelio tells his loved ones after a brief moment of reunion, and Donizetti doesn't indulge on that front either. Neither really has time for it, as the citizens of Calais, fearful and starving, confront the mayor, blaming him for a situation that they have been led to believe could have been peacefully resolved. Eustachio however points out that the ringleader of the protests is none other than an Englishman in disguise trying to undermine their resolve, and the town react violently against the imposter.
The opening of The Siege of Calais is incredibly intense, with fervent singing that has all the necessary drive and expression to match the dire situation of the besieged city. There is inevitably a lot of patriotic fervour, and according to the ETO one of the main themes of the work is where the duty of a citizen lies, but beneath it all is a strong humanitarian sentiment that shines through. Not only is it clearly there in the music, but as is often the case with Donizetti, the writing for the singers allows the depth of feeling to be fully expressed. Even the structure and development of the drama reflects this, the expressions of fear, anxiety and despair invariably turning into hope, strength and determination.
The humanitarian crisis is also the focus of James Conway's dark, gritty, oppressive production. The setting is not period, but non-specific modern dress of an embattled nation of people, all of them dressed in dull rags and overcoats, sporting wounds and looking beaten-down. Conway's notes that the look is referenced from imagery from the bombardment of Stalingrad in WWII, but it captures something that is recognisable to anyone who watches the news. The questions facing a suffering people, the choices they have to make are what L'assedio di Calais is all about, and the ETO's production design reaches right out to those ideas much more meaningfully than a distant middle-ages conflict.
The tone darkens even further in Act II, beginning with Aurelio dreaming of his son and family slaughtered, and it doesn't get any better from there. The English have agreed to withdraw their siege of the town, but there's a price to be paid; six hostages must be handed over for execution. In line with the sentiments, the musical scoring goes to the kind of dark places that remind one of what Verdi would do later, but it's impressive to hear it in Donizetti. There's a little bit of jingoism in the sentiments as the men step forward to save their city - "By a cruel twist of fate we are victims, but we are still French!", they may proclaim, but the fire that lights their anger comes from a deeper place.
Links: ARTE Concert, English Touring Opera