Assured Performance by ETO of The Siege of Calais

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Donizetti, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais): Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English Touring Opera/Jeremy Silver (conductor), Grand Theatre, Blackpool, United Kingdom, 12.5.2015 (MC)

Sung in Italian with English subtitles.

Eustachio: Craig Smith
Eleanora: Paula Sides
Aurelio: Helen Sherman
Edoardo: Nicholas Merryweather
Pietro de Wissants: Matthew Stiff
Giovanni: Andrew Glover
Edmondo: Ronan Busfield
Giacomo de Wissants: Matt R J Ward
Armando: Jan Capinski
Incognito: Peter Brathwaite


Director: James Conway
Designer: Samal Blak
Lighting Designer: Mark Howland
Assistant Director: Dafydd Hall Williams


It’s always pleasing to attend an opera at The Grand, Blackpool, the renowned jewel designed by Victorian architect Frank Matcham, especially one as excellent as this English Touring Opera production of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais). A score about patriotism and bravery it seems that Donizetti had wanted Paris for the première of the work although it was actually introduced in Naples at the Teatro San Carlo in 1836.

Director James Conway has auspiciously transported Donizetti’s opera seria set in fourteenth century Calais, a city besieged during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France forward to the twentieth century to what I took to be Stalingrad, although I suppose it could equally be Sarajevo. This dramatic mega-patriotic scene where the city’s people would be spared in exchange for the lives of its six foremost citizens was immortalised by Rodin’s famous bronze of the Burghers of Calais. Conway’s effective set, a dark and grimy grey coloured piece of urban landscape wasted by artillery bombardments, centred on a shell damaged, large diameter concrete sewer pipe, tall enough to walk through. From the original three act score Conway has removed the final act where the Burghers’ lives are reprieved and recycled two of the arias which didn’t worry me too much as the end product works extremely well.

Shining brightly in the trouser-role of Aurelio mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman gave a sterling performance of dramatic integrity. Crystal clear diction and powerful vocal power ensured her resilient voice cut through the orchestral sound to every corner of the house. Giving a rock-steady portrayal of Eustachio, Craig Smith excelled displaying his rich, low baritone. Helped by a strong stage presence Smith was highly compelling as people’s leader and the life threatening responsibilities it entailed.  Soprano Paula Sides in the part of Aurelio’s wife Eleanora was conspicuous for her smooth attractive timbre and expressive interpretation, convincingly wracked with anxiety for her starving baby and consumed with fear over family’s plight. Persuasive as the military commander Edoardo, baritone Nicholas Merryweather gave his all, singing sonorously and expressively. As this role required relatively little stage time I look forward to seeing this talented singer in something more demanding.

In a production without a noticeable weak link the chorus of citizens and soldiers were heavily employed and delivered the goods with considerable assurance. Further demonstrating the strength of the company were the well judged performances in the minor roles. Under the assured baton of Jeremy Silver the twenty-six strong orchestra was perfect for the compact dimensions of Grand Theatre providing excellent support with some pleasing solo contributions that delighted the ear.

None of my group ever did work out what those sack-like objects were suspended  on cords from the ceiling and if I have a minor grumble it concerns the rather cavalier way the family passed the baby around. Providing such satisfying entertainment Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais worked wonderfully well in the intimate surroundings of the Grand Theatre, Blackpool.

Michael Cookson

For another review of this production please see

1 thought on “Assured Performance by ETO of The Siege of Calais”

  1. Why is this production being continually praised. I saw a student production a few years back and thought it a fine opera, well worth a place in the repetoire. This production cuts out the last act leaving only a bit to be inserted as a prologue. Shifting the production from Calais to the siege of Lenningrad or the likes makes a few cheap points at the expense of the composer’s intentions and the downbeat ending is the opposite of Donizetti and historical fact. the singing was fine but the production was dreary in the extreme. I have been a great fan of this company, but this was a real error in taste. Perhaps we should consider the intentions of the composer as more important than the ego of the producer.


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