The UK’s first staged performance of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (1836) came only in 1993 when the Guildhall School of Music and Drama took the piece to its heart. Since then it has enjoyed a handful of appearances on these shores, including a 2013 production from English Touring Opera, which now enjoys its first revival.
One of the reasons why the piece may have been neglected is because, although Donizetti described it as ‘my most exacting opera’, even he was dissatisfied with the third act. James Conway’s production gets around the problems it poses by simply not including it, while finding clever ways of inserting its best music into Acts I and II. This works well for a modern audience that does not have the same rigid expectations as the nineteenth century concerning how an opera should close. Indeed, we are more inclined to appreciate an ending of utter sadness than an additional act with an unconvincing attempt to give the story an upbeat ending.
The story focuses on the reactions of Eustachio, the leader of Calais, and his son Aurelio to the siege of their city by the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Their situation is hopeless and their deliberations revolve around whether everyone should continue such a futile struggle. When the English captain Edmondo comes with an offer from Edoardo III that if they select six prominent citizens for death the city will be pardoned, everyone favours fighting to the bitter end. Eustachio, however, persuades them to accept the deal so that the women and children will be spared. He submits his name as do four others, but begs Aurelio to refrain for the sake of his wife and child. Aurelio, however, will not be swayed and (at least in the absence of Act III) the story closes on them all going to their deaths.
As a touring production, Samal Blak’s set is designed to fit into a variety of spaces and, since it cannot be assumed that it will find a particular affinity with every stage it graces, director James Conway has clearly ensured that our eyes are drawn into the specific things that happen upon it. Mark Howland’s lighting designs help with this, and with the set predominantly lit from above, the sides and two diagonals, areas of light and shade are created across faces and bodies.
The set and dress feel modern, connecting the piece to current atrocities without referencing any particular conflict. Buckets, alluding to the scarcity of water, and rags lie (and indeed hang) all around. That the same area is used to portray both outside and inside the city reveals how even the besieging army would have been dogged with dirt, disease and poor sanitation. The wall is portrayed with a huge concrete sewage pipe, which proves a clever device because it only has to spin around to tell us whether we are seeing the inside or outside of the city. Edoardo’s aria in which he anticipates victory is paralleled by Eustachio’s own of lament as both deliver them sitting on their respective sides. The pipe also acts as a city gate through which aggressor and captive can pass.
The chorus is used effectively so that it often seems bigger than it actually is, and the way in which crowds frequently huddle affects the manner in which certain plot points are conveyed. At the start Aurelio climbs over the wall to find food, and although the army outside notices him he manages to flee. Here, because they are packed so tightly that they could grab him at any moment, more emphasis is placed on the soldiers letting him escape having already had their fun taunting him. Similarly, in Act I Eustachio invites his own side to kill him if he is impeding a solution. With his people in such close proximity he has to be surer than ever that his first words will be enough to deter them for otherwise he would be struck down in an instant.
The ending is highly effective as each of the six volunteers for death is handed a unique personality, with some crumbling and others remaining dignified, just as in Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais. Then as they are led through the pipe to their fate a single light falling on them bathes them in glory as the crowd huddle to create a diagonal that mirrors that of the crack in the pipe.
Jeremy Silver conducts superbly, while the strong cast is led by Catherine Carby as Aurelio and Paula Sides as his wife. Sometimes their sorrow feels a little too ‘spiritual’ so that they spend more time gazing to the heavens than locked in tearful embrace, but their respective mezzo-soprano and soprano voices both stand out individually, and work very well together. Craig Smith presents a strong baritone and suitably torn persona as Eustachio, while Grant Doyle utilises an equally fine instrument to illustrate Edoardo’s arrogance and ruthlessness.
English Touring Opera will perform Donizetti’s Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo at the Hackney Empire on 12 March, and La bohème on 13 and 14 March. Following this, all three productions, as well as two children’s/family operas, will continue to tour the country. For full details of venues and dates visit the English Touring Opera website.