United Kingdom Donizetti, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera / Jeremy Silver (conductor), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 2.5.2013. (RJ)
Edoardo III: Cozmin Sime
Edmondo: Adam Tunnicliffe
Eustachio: Eddie Wade
Aurelio: Helen Sherman
Eleonora: Paula Sides
Giovanni D’Aire: Stuart Haycock
Pietro de Wisants: Brendan Collins
Giacomo de Wisants: Niel Joubert
Armando: Matthew Sprange
A Stranger: Piotr Lempa
Director: James Conway
Designer: Samal Black
Lighting Designer: Ace McCarron
It would be remiss of this website to allow English Touring Opera’s spring tour to come to an end without mention of what is currently its most ambitious project: the UK’s first professional stage performance of Donizetti’s 49th opera, L’assedio di Calais. This is a work which first saw the light of day in Naples back in 1836, so one wonders why it has taken so long to reach us. On further investigation I discovered there were no performances of it anywhere for 150 years after 1840 until it was revived for the Donizetti Festival at Bergamo in 1990.
So what’s the problem? In his pre-performance talk the ETO’s assistant conductor Carlos del Cueto put partly it down to the fact there is no tenor role in the opera. At the time of its premiere Donizetti did not have at his disposal a tenor suitable for the role of Aurelio so he wrote it for a mezzo soprano instead. (But so did Mozart, Handel and Gluck before him.) Another problem is Act 3. Donizetti was dissatisfied with this act, which included ballets to please the French public – and it was sometimes left out of early performances, although this meant depriving the opera of its denouement – and a happy ending.
Director James Conway, too, has left out Act 3 in this production, but as recompense he has taken its best bits and inserted them elsewhere in the opera. Thus King Edward III sings his aria “ L’avvenir per me fia tutto, Un trionfo, una vittoria” / “Every obstacle to my glory, Is overcome at last!” not at the end of the opera but at the start as he rallies his troops. And the Act 3 aria “Raddopia i baci tuoi, Parte di me piu cara…”/ “Dearest part of me, Kiss me again and again…”, which reflects the feelings of the women of Calais as they bid their husbands farewell, is repositioned in Act 2 just before the six burghers leave the city to face execution.
The opera opens outside the city of Calais where the English army is encamped. There were no picturesque 14th century costumes here though, but drab 20th century battledress set against a backdrop of shelled buildings and total destruction. During the overture the soldiers discover a thief in their midst but he manages to slip away. We discover later that this is Aurelio, son-in-law of the Mayor of Calais Eustachio, who is desperately seeking food for his family. The plight of the city’s defenders, however, is of little concern to the English king (sung by Romanian Cozmin Sime) who is impatient to take Calais and and urges his troops on to victory.
The opera then moves into the besieged city – not the Municipal Palace of Calais as specified by Donizetti but a wasteland where no building is left standing. We get an idea of the desperate plight the city from Eddie Wade as Eustachio who wrings his hands in despair as he considers the starvation and other deprivations the people are suffering from. When he hears from his daughter-in-law, Eleonora, that his son Aurelio has probably perished at the hands of the English his grief knows no bounds as he sings: “Le fibre, oh Dio! m’investe / Orrida man di gelo!” / “A dreadful icy hand, oh God, assails my flesh” He is joined in a moving duet by Eleonora, sung by Paula Sides. (I could hardly believe this was the same Paula Sides I had seen two evenings earlier as the delightfully subversive chamber maid Despina in Così fan tutte.)
But when Giovanni (Andrew Glover) rushes in to tell them Aurelio is still alive, the music becomes more upbeat as with the duet “Un instante i mali obblio / Dell’ orrenda e lunga guerra!… “/ “In one moment I forgot the troubles / Of the long, horrendous war!”. A tearful but joyful reunion takes place as Aurelio (Helen Sherman) sings “Al mio cor oggetti amati / Vi congiunga un solo amplesso… “/ “Let me hold to my heart / All my dearest in one embrace” cluching his baby son in his arms. But the precariousness of their situation cannot be cast aside and Aurelio urges his comrades to fight to the end with the aria “Giamma del forte ardir non langue “/ “Never may our courage grow less”.
The Mayor suddenly discovers he has a rebellion on his hands when a stranger enters urging the mob to kill him. But a loyal group of burghers remonstrate with the crowd in “Plebe ingrata, non è questi, Il tuo padre il tuo sostegno”/ “Ungrateful people, has not this man been Father and provider to you?” and the opposition dies down. In Act 2 Aurelio experiences a nightmare in which his son is captured and killed by English soldiers before his very eyes, which a distraught Eleanora regards as an omen. Later news arrives that the English are prepared to discuss terms, but when King Edward’s herald Edmondo announces the terms – the sacrifice of six leading citizens – the crowd is outraged and so is Aurelio who gives Edmondo very short shrift. Yet Eustachio realises that there is no other option: it is necessary to sacrifice a few in order to save the many. So he puts his name on the list of willing victims Edmondo has left followed by four others and, much to his regret, Aurelio. The chorus “O sacra polva, o suol natio” / “Oh treasured soil, our homeland” provides a moving conclusion to the act.
And there it ends. In the original opera the hostages arrive in the English camp and after the intervention of the Queen of England the King agrees to spare them – which paints the English in a more favourable light. One could argue that the ending to Act 2 is so powerful both musically and dramatically, that the original ending would appear lightweight after all the drama – even if the ballets are left out. On the other hand the extra act, however short, would round off the plot more satisfactorily and leave the audience less emotionally drained.
The debate will doubtless continue. What is not in doubt is that this is a tense and thrilling production full of excellent and challenging music which engages the listener from the very start. The public realm alternates with poignant domestic scenes to bring home the dreadful plight of a population under siege. There are some wonderful portrayals. Paula Sides is magnficent as the concerned wife and mother Eleanora, and so is Eddy Wade as the anguished Mayor who is both a devoted father and a troubled leader. And despite Mr del Cueto’s remarks about tenors I felt the wonderful battle-scarred Helen Sherman was as good as any man could be in the role of the impetuous Aurelio who beneath all the bravado is a family man at heart.
A great bonus in this opera are the many and varied choruses which were sung with gusto and feeling by the company and choreographed with flair. There are plenty of them – joyous, defiant, desperate, determined, stirring and patriotic – and they set the tone of the production, for this is ensemble drama par excellence. Conductor Jeremy Silver kept an alert eye on the action and drew some spirited and atmospheric playing from a larger orchestra than one normally expects with a touring production.
Despite my few reservations I feel ETO deserves a high praise for this enterprising production. Long may they continue to innovate and bring neglected works to the attention of the public! And although I don’t usually mention sponsors, thanks and congratulations are also due to the Peter Moores Foundation for enabling The Siege of Calais to take to the road.
ETO continue their tour with performances of The Siege of Calais in Warwick, Cambridge and Perth.