The Guildhall School of Music & Drama appears to have cornered the market among conservatoires in exploring neglected operas and discovering real gems.
Recent highlights have included Aulis Sallinen’s The King Goes Forth to France, Gluck’s La rencontre imprvue and Jonathan Dove’s The Little Green Swallow.
No less worthy of attention, Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (1836) received its British premire at the Guildhall in 1993, and this new production, under conductor David Angus and director Alessandro Talevi, appears to be the first in this country since then. It tells the story of the 1347 siege of Calais by the English king Edward III, his demand of the sacrifice of six city burghers to spare the rest of the inhabitants, and the intercession of his queen on their behalf.
Talevi immediately immerses the audience in those harrowing circumstances: the central characters are trapped on a raised platform, snarling English archers surging out of the darkness at any attempt to escape. Madeleine Boyd’s costumes subtly characterized the two factions, the ragged pallour of the starving French contrasting with the menacing blackness of the English a portrayal of good against evil?
For middle-period Donizetti, L’assedio is short on vocal pyrotechnics, the plot lending itself rather better to contemplation and despair. Impressive throughout in this vein was the Eustachio of Duncan Rock, whose imposing stature and vocal warmth made him the focal point of the production.
Mire Flavin was a feisty Aurelio, driving effortlessly through Donizetti’s coloratura as she roused her comrades to action, but also tender in her scenes with Eva Ganizate. The latter, as Aurelio’s wife Eleonora, was sometimes shrill and unclear but always moving, and her Act II duet with Flavin was the emotional and musical highlight of the evening.
The English royal couple, played by Alexander Robin Baker and Elena Sancho-Pereg, only appear in Act III; without denigrating their performances, it is easy to see why Donizetti cut this final act when he revived the opera the music is uninspiring (Edward’s premature aria of triumph aside, majestically sung by Baker ) and the plot, in its efforts to be historically accurate, fizzles out the composer surely realized the power of having the six victims march to their deaths at the end of Act II.
While the onstage performers were largely solid, the same could not be said for their colleagues in the pit. David Angus is a vastly experienced conductor, and his tireless efforts were evident: he paced every number to perfection and his control of the dynamic ebb and flow of the music was excellent.
It was then a shame that, for all his hard work, the orchestra were consistently below standard: there were moments where everything came together successfully, notably the tutti ensembles, but intonation and rhythmic precision were generally wayward. While disappointing, this did not detract from the overall spectacle: the Guildhall are to be congratulated for presenting us with another unjustly forgotten work. Massenet’s Chrubin is next term’s offering, and is bound to be unmissable.