L'Assedio Di Calais (The Siege of Calais) by Gaetano Donizetti at the Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, New York

This review is for the matinee performance of Saturday, 19 August, 2017.

Conductor: Joseph Colaneri
Director: Francesca Zambello

Cast:
Eustachio: Adrian Timpau
Eleonora (Aurelio's wife): Leah Crocetto
Giovanni d'Aire: Chaz'men Williams-Ali
Pietro de Wisants: Makoto Winkler
Aurelio (Eustachio's son): Aleks Romano
An English Spy: Zachary Owen
Giacomo de Wisants: Joseph Leppek
Armando: Carl DuPont
Edmondo: Andres Moreno Garcia
Edoardo III, King of England: Harry Greenleaf
Isabella, Queen of England: Helena Brown

The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Donizetti's L'Assedio Di Calais is, apparently, the first-ever performance of this opera in the USA. Although I bought the Opera Rara recording of this obscure operaa couple of months ago in an attempt to prepare myself (and listened to it only once...), I went in to the opera not really knowing what to expect. Francesca Zambello, in my experience, can be either really inspired or, in some cases, not-so-inspired. In this case, she was truly inspired and came up with a terrific production of an undeservedly little known opera - and a gem of a performance.

The opera itself is based upon an historical incident from the beginning of the Hundred Years War (the war, you will remember, was between the House of Plantagenet (England) and the House of Valois (France) regarding the succession to the French throne. In 1346, Edward III of England who had begun the war in 1337, saw in the City of Calais a defensible port where his army could rest while awaiting fresh supplies. After some months of stalemate, Edward decided to starve the city into submission. By the time the city was forced to concede defeat, there were thousands that were starving and dying from a cholera epidemic. Edward, not satisfied with mere surrender of the city, demanded that six prominent citizens come before him with nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city "...and they shall be at my mercy to deal with as I please." This incident is recalled in a famous Rodin sculpture "The Burghers of Calais":


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Zambello has updated the opera to the present day, complete with a bombed-out superstructure and a chorus of good guys dressed in rags and appearing as homeless and starving. The set was shocking in its realism and immediately made me think of the horrible situation in modern Syria. The opening chorus of bad guys entered in front of a corrugated steel wall and was dressed in bulletproof vests and carried automatic rifles in the appropriate safety-down position which was immediately attention grabbing.

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(unfortunately, I was unable to find additional photos.)

The opera and its music, despite the ballet having been eliminated (or, not so much 'despite'), was constantly interesting and was stunningly enhanced by the grim set devised by Francesca Zambello. The action comprises the typical bel canto series of arias, ensembles and choruses that represent, in my view, Donizetti at his peak. Leah Crocetto sang the role of our hero, Aurelio's wife - Aurelio is a trouser role, which took a minute to grasp since the character is sung by Young Artist Aleks Romano, whose name is not immediately recognizable as it is no less androgynous than the character. Crocetto and Romano sing a wonderful duet, their voices blending beautifully (albeit with a handful of sharp high notes from each that did not harm the overall impression or performance.

With the supertitles screened over the proscenium, it began to be clear as to one possible reason why this opera doesn't get out much: the libretto is unrelentingly dark, with constant descriptions and discussion of suffering, dreams of murder and the decision over which six prominent citizens were to be paraded before King Edward and their likely demise.

Other notable leads were baritone Adrian Timpau's Eustachio (the Mayor of Calais and Aurelio's father) and a charming (if a bit too enthusiastic in his describing how he would lay waste to the city and the six hostages) Harry Greenleaf's King Edward. This was a terrifically diverse cast and chorus, including African-American Helena Brown's Queen of England.

This performance also represented my sister's first opera - not the best choice for a first opera, especially for a woman without much interest in art or classical music. My brother in law has a little more experience, but had not seen an opera in some 40 years. My sister was surprised that she enjoyed it (although allows that the just over 2 hour running time improved accessibility) and both told me they would go again.

Oh, by the way, King Edward was impressed by the nobility of the six citizens, inspired by the Queen, decides to pardon them. So, dark libretto notwithstanding, we had a happy ending!