The Siege of Calais, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, March 2015Posted on 8 March 2015
Donizetti had once hoped to make his entry to Paris with this opera, but it was not to be. The weakness was Act III, wisely cut by James Conway in this production, leaving us with the departure of six burghers from Calais being sent to their deaths on the command of England’s king Edward III, a real event in 1346 during the early years of the Hundred Years War.
The consequence of their selfless act, celebrated in a statue by Rodin (of which a cast can be seen in the shadows of the British Parliament), was finally alleviated by Edward’s wife, who persuaded the king to show clemency. That happy ending, along with ballet music, formed the short Act III of Donizetti’s opera, some of whose music Conway has brought into Act II.
The English Army look a dangerous lot, particularly when Aurelio from Calais sneaks into their camp to steal provisions for his starving comrades. He is caught. The drama then takes on a more complex character as the men of Calais threaten to kill their leader Eustachio, egged on by an unnamed foreigner, who tells them they could gain favourable terms by suing for peace. Donizetti’s music makes the most of such dramatic moments, based on Pierre de Belloy’s patriotic play Le siège de Calais. Pity the opera never made it to Paris, but this 2013 production makes a thrilling bel canto take on a poignant moment of history.
Robust singing from the chorus with fine conducting by Jeremy Silver brought out the life and energy of Donizetti’s score. The music packs an emotional punch, and Craig Smith as Eustachio the Mayor fully brought out the agony of defiance and starvation, as did Catherine Carby as his son Aurelio, full of grim determination. Aurelio’s wife was beautifully portrayed by Paula Sides, a young Meryl Streep look-alike, her gentle lyricism and superb duet with Aurelio in early Act II fully bringing out the distress of her position.
In his brief appearance as the enemy spy, Peter Brathwaite sang with great strength, and Grant Doyle’s Act I vignette as Edward III was a highlight of the performance (much looking forward to his Marcello in Bohème on Friday!). The naked aggression of Ronan Busfield as the English captain gave a strong focus to the invaders’ determination and a wittily light moment in his interaction with the king.
James Conway’s production with its grimly effective set and costume designs by Samal Blak, superbly lit by Mark Howland, very much brings to life Donizetti’s vision of one moment in the Hundred Years War.
Performances continue on tour at: Lighthouse, Poole, 21st Mar; Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 31st Mar; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 8th Apr; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, 14th Apr; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 29th Apr; The Hawth, Crawley, 7th May; The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 9th May; Grand Theatre Blackpool, 12th May; Gala Theatre, Durham, 19th May; Cambridge Arts Theatre, 26th May; Thália Theatre, Budapest, 30th Jun.