Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) - English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, 9 March 2013
L’assedio di Calais is one of those Donizetti operas that don't get many outings. The fault is not in the music, which with its many delightful ensemble pieces is no worse than his more popular works. However the gloomy subject (check the title) doesn't do it any favours. Neither does the (non-)story line (check the title again). The one and only moment of dramatic tension comes towards the end, when the besieged burghers have to decide whether to sacrifice six of their number to seal a peace deal with the beastly besiegers.
We were spared the third act and its happy ending by English Touring Opera's judicious cutting and reordering, and so the evening concluded after a brief two hours with the aforementioned decision. Or not quite. As the audience trooped out into the night, the orchestra struck up the jolly ballet music from the excised act to send us home. A happy ending after all.
James Conway's intelligent production draws parallels with the Siege of Stalingrad (imagine the back pats Shostakovich might have received if he'd taken up the patriotic story). Samal Blak's set is a broken pipe that serves as wall and home, and hanging from the sky are mysterious bundles that look like your Christmas presents after UPS chucked them over the hedge while you were out. Everyone wears smelly-looking rags, even the 'baby' passed around to reinforce the more maudlin moments.
Good singers are required to compensate for the work's dramatic shortcomings, and there is one genuine revelation in this production. The good looking youth caught stealing bread from the enemy camp during the overture turned out, to my surprise, to be the mezzo Helen Sherman playing Aurelio. I've never seen a more convincing boy. And she can sing too. Her voice is warm, flexible and attractively rounded, and she sang assertively and evenly from top to bottom. I can easily imagine her in the sort of parts Joyce DiDonato specialises in - bel canto, Handel, Mozart - anything that needs stupendous technical command and real character.
As Aurelio's wife Eleonora, the only soprano in a cast heaving with men, Paula Sides impressed too. Most of the male parts are baritones, and perhaps the lack of a showy leading tenor role is another reason for the opera's obscurity. All of the cast sang well, and the male chorus numbers were particularly impressive in the Empire's resonant acoustic. ETO like to present works in English where possible, but I think it made sense to retain the Italian as they did here.
Jeremy Silver had the privilege of conducting this, the work's first professional production in the UK. The orchestra played cleanly despite the sprightly tempi, no more so than in the bonus ballet conclusion. I'm not sure that this is a work the big opera houses will (or should) be rushing to put on, but it's a lot better than its status suggests, and certainly worth more than just curiosity value.
production photos (above) Richard Hubert Smith
curtain call photos (below) www.intermezzo.typepad.com