United Kingdom Donizetti, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais): Chorus & Orchestra of English Touring Opera/Jeremy Silver. Hackney Empire, London, 1.3.2015 (CC)
Eustachio: Craig Smith
Eleanora: Paula Sides
Aurelio: Catherine Carby
Edoardo: Grant Doyle
Pietro de Wissants: Matthew Stiff
Giovanni: Andrew Glover
Edmondo: Ronan Busfield
Giacomo de Wissants: Matt R. J. Ward
Armando: Jan Capinski
Incognito: Peter Braithwaite
We seem to be enjoying something of a blessed time for rare opera. Recently, Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore featured at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; now, award-winning company English Touring Opera bring Donizetti’s Siege of Calais to the stage at Hackney. Placed in Donizetti’s oeuvre after Lucia di Lammermoor, L’assedio di Calais has been revived at Wexford and at the Guildhall. This is itself a revival of ETO’s 2013 production by James Conway.
The score is not heard complete, but in two acts rather than the original three, with some of the third act music inserted retrospectively. It means we miss out on the ballet music (and anyone who has read my review of the Massenet may be able to glean my reactions to that omission). Originally intended to set events in Calais in 1347, the setting is relocated to Leningrad in the twentieth century (another famous siege of course). The central tenet of the sacrifice of the few to save the many is poignantly told. The stage setting is stark, with unidentifiable chunks of somethings hanging from the ceiling (whatever they are, they are not pretty) and part of a large rotatable conical tube that can function either as shelter or as the wall of a city. Much is achieved with little in this production, not least because of Mark Howland’s lighting. A rather unconvincing baby doll bundle substitutes for a baby proper. The story is laid bare effectively, the politics of patriotism perfectly revealed by Donizetti’s poignant writing. The Rodin sculpture “The Burghers of Calais” forms the basis for the poses of the men at the very end.
This is, in fact, a fine opera, full of pathos and genuinely touching. Jeremy Silver’s conducting is remarkable. It is clear he is drawing the best, and more possibly, from his players. Perhaps it is in the darker moments, such as the Introduction to Eustachio’s aria from Act 1 Scene 2, “Qual silenzio funesto”, that things seem to come truly together from every angle. The feel for the long line in the orchestra is mirrored by the fine cast, all of whom seem impeccably schooled in Italianate expression. Craig Smith is the patriotic old man Eustacio, a fine baritone who could perhaps add a tad more resonance to his voice. Nevertheless, the Verdian sense of gravitas he evokes is palpable.
As Aurelio (a trouser role), mezzo Catherine Carby excels in her/his vocal strength and delivers one of the winning characterisations of the evening. The brief aria “Giammai del forte ardir non langue”, with its large-interval jumps and pyrotechnics (it soon blossoms into an ensemble) was taken with seeming ease. Aurelio’s dramatic duet with Eleanora, his wife, was terrific. Eleanora’s part was memorably sung here by Paula Sides. Less convincing, perhaps, is Grant Doyle’s Edoardo (the leader of the besieging army), who lacked the presence his character demands to make it convincing.
The smaller roles were generally well taken (Andrew Glover’s Giovanni, although well sung, was rather stage-bound however). The chorus is small (fourteen, I counted), and at times one hankered for a more impressive wall of sound. Yet the strength of emotion is all there. Yet one can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and there is no denying the fact that the evening was an absolute joy.
For information on all ETO productions and tour dates see Wild Men and Fantastic Tales in our preview section.