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A joyous revival of Donizetti’s ‘L‘assedio di Calais’

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Odyssey Opera presents 'L'assedio di Calais.'
Kathy Wittman

L’assedio di Calais
Presented by Odyssey Opera
Conducted by Gil Rose; Directed by Joshua Major
Music by Gaetano Donizetti; Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
Oct. 26 and 28, 2017

Gaetano Donizetti’s operas, such as Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore, are some of the most frequently performed operas in the world, so there was quite a bit of excitement when L’assedio di Calais, which hadn’t been performed since 1840, was revived in 1990 in Europe at the Bergamo Festival and just last year in the United States at the Glimmerglass Festival. Odyssey Opera put on this production as part of “Trial by Fire: Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years’ War,” a season-long exploration of operatic works inspired by martyr, saint, and military leader Joan of Arc.

In L’assedio, Donizetti explores a theme new to him: sacrificial patriotism. The opera centers on the 1346 siege of Calais when Edward III laid a year-long siege on the strategically valuable French port city during the Hundred Years’ War. Brought to the brink of starvation, the citizens of the town parlayed for surrender. According to medieval records, Edward’s terms for sparing the lives of the city’s people was the execution of six volunteer victims. The mayor and five other citizens walking out of the city gates with nooses around their necks is a scene that not only inspired playwrights and composers, but also lead to one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, The Burghers of Calais. The burghers are saved by the timely intervention of Queen Philippa of Hainault, the consort of Edward III, who believed that killing the six citizens would bring bad luck to her unborn child. This story, with its happy ending and coup de théâtre, neatly fit Eugene Scribe’s French convention of a “well-made play,” and apparently, a well-made opera.

L’assedio di Calais brings us in close contact with the brave men and women of Calais. Right off the bat, we’re reeled in by the poignant, soaring soprano of Lucia Cesaroni, who plays Aurelio’s wife, Eleonora. Magda Gartner, who plays a pants role as fiery and proud Aurelio, delivers a stunning performance. At times, I worried that such raw power coming from such a petite figure would result in a small conflagration in stage. James Westman’s rich, booming baritone, the voice of the mayor of Calais, pairs wonderfully in duets with the soaring sopranos. The Odyssey Opera chorus was spectacular, playing a motley array of English soldiers and Calais citizens, and for the most part, keeping up with the orchestra conducted by Gil Rose.

Unlike in typical 19th century Italian opera, the focus of Donizetti’s pieces is not on show-stopping solos or prima donnas (like Tosca). Arias meld into duets, which coalesce into catchy, rhythmic ensemble pieces. The music is cheery, even when Aurelio is describing his nightmare about his son being slaughtered by English soldiers (because what’s the point of being gloomy about it?). Donizetti, along with Bellini and Rossini, is one of the masters of the bel canto opera style. This operatic style is characterized by an emphasis on the virtuosity of the performance rather than on its romantic or emotional quality, and the virtuosity was most definitely on display in this production.

I enjoyed the flirtatious pairing of John Allen Nelson (baritone) and Deborah Selig (soprano) as king and queen. Selig arrives deus ex machina style at the last moment, heavily pregnant (word on the street: not with Edward’s child) and very regal. Her interpretation of the queen’s role adds some believability to an otherwise dubious moment in history. Eleonora and the other women of Calais burst out of the city gates to plead for mercy for the lives of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The queen looks pityingly at the baby in Eleonora’s arms and strokes her protruding belly, seemingly struck in that moment by motherly instinct. Her plaintive entreaty to her husband leads into the joyful chorus that concludes the opera.

Odyssey Opera’s production has a somewhat more homespun feel than the polished productions staged in large, chilly theatres. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the directors, in an effort to make the opera feel more relatable to the human experience. Odyssey Opera is a relative newcomer in the operatic world, having been founded in 2013, but it has rapidly established itself as a purveyor of excellent and original productions, such as L’assedio di Calais. I look forward to the continuation of the Trial by Fire arc in Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen on Dec. 1.