In Odyssey Opera’s Thursday performance of Domenico Gaetano Donizetti’s rarely mounted L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais), Gil Rose led the assorted forces with his accustomed clarity and assurance. Strong on all fronts that matter, from set design, stage direction, costumes, singers, and orchestra, the show delighted from beginning to end. Anyone with a love for Italian opera should immediately secure tickets for Saturday’s reprise at the Huntington Avenue Theater.
The action centers upon English King Edward III’s 1346 siege upon the French coastal city of Calais in an attempt to add yet another country to his growing British Empire. The citizens of Calais boldly continue to refuse to surrender, so Edward sends an envoy carrying a message of dire portent the French – we British will spare the people and city of Calais under one condition: you must choose six of your own to be publicly sacrificed as “ransom.” Six Frenchmen—including father and son Eustachio and Aurelio—volunteer to be sacrificed. The condemned men give keys to the city to King Edward and prepare to meet their doom. In French opera of the time, a happy ending was expected, so Donizetti provides one. Queen Isabella – notably pregnant and thus sympathetic – takes pity on Aurelio, his wife, and their infant son and intercedes. The English officers join with their Queen, and King Edward allows the six burghers their freedom, resulting in general rejoicing.
The strong cast was led by baritone James Westman in the demanding lead role of Eustachio de Sainte-Pierre, the besieged Mayor of Calais, whose city has been suffering under a lengthy attack by British forces led by Edward III, King of England – nobly sung by baritone John Allen Nelson. Mezzo-soprano Magda Gartner energetically and beautifully sang and acted the “trouser” role of Aurelio, Eustachio’s son. Lucia Cesaroni, soprano, was Eleanora, Aurelio’s wife. Cesaroni often performed in the shadow of Aurelio, yet she managed to shine forth on several occasions with a slightly tremulous instrument that was not devoid of emotional content and sympathy. Neal Ferreira, lyric tenor, Alan Schneider, tenor, James Demler, baritone, Christopher Carbin, bass-baritone were ardent and wholly believable as Burghers of Calais. Baritone Sumner Thompson sang the unsympathetic role of Edmondo, an English General who brings King Edward’s bad news to the people of Calais with gleaming tone and authoritative demeanor. Deborah Selig, singing Isabella, Queen of England, was both amusing and regal, bedecked in ermine, and not so subtly critical of her husband’s tactics of war.
The libretto for this unusual work was developed by Salvatore Cammarano, a frequent collaborator with Donizetti, and a skilled dramatist. Cammarano skillfully joined two operatic traditions—Italian and French—in L’assedio di Calais, creating a concise drama that flows with inexorable energy as it colorfully and poetically depicts the course of events.
Donizetti’s 49th (!) opera, as Laura Pritchard pointed out in her essay, contrasted markedly with the composer’s contemporaneous masterwork, Lucia di Lammermoor. L’assedio consciously minimizes the role of the prima donna—a typical Italian opera conceit—and focuses most of its attention on male roles, though Aurelio’s music is unrelentingly dramatic and very wide-ranging in tessitura and coloratura demands. Indeed the sonorous male chorus assembled by Odyssey Opera took on stardom. While relatively small in number they sang with fervor and focus the entire evening—a tribute not only to Donizetti’s skill but also to Chorus Master Mariah Wilson’s thorough and effective preparation.
The handsome stage design was created by Dan Daly. Towering rock walls were ingeniously used for palace interiors and exteriors and allowed for some dramatic climbing up and down and impressive leaps by cast members. Joshua Major, Stage Director dramatically blocked and realized the action. The entirety was skillfully lit by Dennis Parichy, Lighting Designer. I was also impressed by the period costuming, elegantly rendered by Brooke Stanton, Costume Designer.
The superiority, grace and virtuosity of Odyssey Opera Orchestra warrants nods. Cellists David Russell and Nicole Cariglia , who together and separately gave forth real musical involvement and gorgeous tone. The French Horn section of Kevin Owen, Clark Matthews, Whitacre Hill and Alyssa Daly projected a richly golden burnish, and woodwinds, in particular flautists Sarah Brady, Jessica Lizak and Rachel Braude triumphed over Donizetti’s considerable demands. Clarinets, Jan Halloran and Gary Gorczyca handily met brilliant virtuoso challenges.
Get your tickets HERE for Saturday, and enjoy to this gem of an offering from Odyssey Opera!
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.