The Siege of Calais, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, March 2013Posted on 10 March 2013
This is stirring stuff. Although Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) with its unsatisfactory third act is rarely performed, James Conway’s production, which eliminates Act III and its happy ending, is a revelation.
This opera, which immediately followed Lucia di Lammermoor, deals with real historical events. In 1346, towards the start of the Hundred Years War, England’s King Edward III besieged Calais, and in 1347 the siege was still in place. The history is disputed but this opera is based on Pierre du Belloy’s patriotic 1765 play Le siège de Calais, where in order to raise the siege the king demands the city turn over seven of its leading citizens to certain death. Six volunteers, including the mayor and his son, come forth and their resolute bravery so impressed Edward’s mother Queen Isabella that she pleaded for their pardon. The king acceded and Rodin’s sculpture The Burghers of Calais, celebrating their selfless act, can be seen today in Westminster.
In this production the action starts during the overture with the mayor’s son Aurelio foraging for food and being temporarily captured by the enemy. Towards the end he defiantly rejects the king’s demands for the slaughter of noble hostages, but his father Eustace insists on sacrifice lest everyone die of starvation. In the absence of Act III, though two of its better numbers are included in the first two acts, we see the six burghers trudging off to their death.
After the stage calls, cheers and bravos, just as everyone was starting to leave, the orchestra suddenly struck a lighter mood with ballet music from Act III, and we all stepped out into a cold night with a warm feeling of having seen a memorable performance of this little known opera.
Designs by Samal Blak, well lit by Ace McCarron, bring the action into the twentieth century, and Jeremy Silver’s conducting brought out the life and energy of Donizetti’s score. Eddie Wade, whom I last saw as a fine Gunther in The Ring, portrayed a noble mayor, and Paula Sides sang strongly in the soprano role of Aurelio’s wife. The chorus was excellent and there were fine performances from the supporting cast, Andrew Glover in particular.
But the singer that made this a knock-out was Australian mezzo Helen Sherman as Aurelio. Before she started singing, her convincing mannerisms and body language made me think she was a man, and she gave a stunning portrayal of the role. The defiant aria in Act I, and in Act II the duet with his wife, the rejection of the enemy, and the farewell aria to his baby were riveting. Helen Sherman’s mezzo voice is world class, and a glance at her website shows she is singing a huge range of different roles — I look forward to hearing her again.
Congratulations to the ETO. This is unmissable, and if it were in London for a second night I’d go again.
Performances continue on tour at: Exeter Northcott, 22nd Mar; Norwich Theatre Royal, 27th Mar; York Theatre Royal, 13th Apr; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 20th Apr; Buxton Opera House, 27th Apr; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 2nd May; Warwick Arts Centre, 11th May; Perth Festival, Perth Theatre, 16th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 21st May — for details click here.