Donizetti’s 1836 opera, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais), written a year after Lucia di Lammermoor, is something of a rarity. So rare in fact, that the first professional performance in the UK was in this production by English Touring Opera, in 2013. With only one recording from Opera Rara in the catalogue (which, by the way, I have just discovered is available for £131.56 on Amazon, or only £80.00 if you’re prepared to settle for second-hand – a veritable bargain), this work is truly an unknown quantity for most opera-goers. It gives me no pleasure to say that, on experiencing it for the first time, the reasons for its relative anonymity quickly become apparent. As much as ETO is to be congratulated for bringing unusual repertoire before the public; this one, truth be told, is a bit of a dud with more than its fair share of longeurs. The seam of inspiration that Donizetti so prolifically mined the year before for his most celebrated work pretty much closed up on him during the creation of L’assedio. He may have referred to it as “my most exacting opera”, but the end result really does not do his labours much justice.
Based on a historical event in 1346, when Edward III of England, fresh from his victory at Crecy, rolled up with his army at the gates of Calais, the opera deals with the unbearable strain and squalor to which the citizens of a city under a prolonged siege are subjected. And that’s it really – strain, squalor and very little action: an abortive attempt by the hero to steal some food from the English at the very beginning; an improbable and rapidly defused plot against Eustachio, the city leader around the midway point; and some noble self-sacrifice at the very end as half a dozen citizens agree to be executed to save the city. Apart from that, there’s an awful lot of standing around and complaining – entirely understandable of course, but not, by any means, great drama.
Donizetti’s score aims for grandeur but rarely hits the target. It’s jolly enough in a provincial Italian sort of way (inappropriately so at times) but, a few numbers aside, it is largely unmemorable. There is a lovely clarinet solo that opens the second act, a pretty duet for soprano and mezzo, and a striking ensemble immediately before the six citizens march off to meet their fate. The rest feels disappointingly insubstantial and occasionally trivial. The only other unusual element is that the hero, Aurelio, is a trouser role for a mezzo-soprano. In ETO’s version the musical numbers from Act III are either jettisoned completely or subsumed into the first two acts, thereby depriving the aforementioned martyrs of an unlikely reprieve and a happy ending, which, to be honest, would be completely out of kilter with everything that has gone before.
Director James Conway updates the action to a bleak twentieth-century location, possibly Leningrad during World War II. Samal Blak’s set, bathed in Mark Howland’s unremittingly grey lighting, consists of a terrain of dirty, cracked concrete, divided by a large, broken cement pipe that separates the camps of the two combatants. Large bundles of rags are suspended from above to absorb rainwater that drips into buckets placed below. Everyone on the French side of the barrier is worn down by exhaustion, hunger and rapidly fading hope. The English side (which we see only once, at the beginning of Act 1) reeks of the arrogance of the conqueror. The atmosphere created is grim, as well it should be, but the spell is regularly broken jarringly by Donizetti’s almost insolently jaunty tunes.
Over the years, I have enjoyed some marvellous singing courtesy of ETO. Unfortunately, many of the vocal performances in this production are not quite up to the company’s usual high standard, including some voices that have been outstanding on previous occasions. Though none of the cast gave less than one hundred percent commitment, most experienced passages here and there in which they sounded ill at ease and heavily taxed by Donizetti’s vocal writing.
The one exception was the baritone Craig Smith, who in the role of the city leader Eustachio gave a performance of tremendous authority delivered in a voice full of warmth, with security and no little power throughout its range.
As his daughter, Eleonora, soprano Paula Sides had plenty of power and brilliance for the bigger moments but, at a lower dynamic range, the voice lacked some presence and sounded a little insecure. Her husband, Aurelio, is sung by the mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby. Ms Carby is dramatically convincing as the young man and delivers a solid vocal performance, although the coloratura, which is a prominent feature of this role, could be more clearly articulated. More worryingly, the chest resonance she employs for her lowest notes can be harsh and sounds disconnected from the rest of the voice. Both ladies did some lovely work in their duets together.
A few years ago I heard baritone Grant Doyle as a first rate Figaro in ETO’s The Barber of Seville. As Eduardo, his voice seems to have taken on a weightier, plummier quality that has aged it somewhat and increased the width of the vibrato. That said, he managed the coloratura of his Act I cabaletta with aplomb and delivered some ringing high notes.
Andrew Glover as Giovanni is a sympathetic aide to Eustachio, but his attractive tenor has a tendency to fade towards the top of its range.
The cast seemed most energised when singing en masse; the chorus work was superb and often thrilling. In the pit, with a tremendous sense of early nineteenth century Italian style, Jeremy Silver and his players did an extremely solid job.
Surprisingly for an ETO production, the acting was frequently less than convincing. Grabbing and drinking from the nearest bucket became a metaphor for desperation, as did gazing anxiously at the bundle of rags that worked overtime in its role as Eleonora’s and Aurelio’s baby. The beating up of the spy who had infiltrated the city was entirely unconvincing, with arms flailing in all directions except the obvious one. And would the king of England really dance a jaunty little jig with one of his soldiers in the middle of his aria?
It is always interesting to experience live a work that rarely sees the light of day, and that one is unlikely to see again. However this felt like something of a missed opportunity. L’assedio di Calais may not be great Donizetti, but had the performance been able to attain ETO’s usual level of performance, it might have been better served.