Sunday 8 March 2015

Dramatic bel canto - Donizetti's 'L'assedio di Calais' in Hackney

Donizetti - Siege of Calais - ETO - photo credit Bill Knight
Paula Sides, Craig Smith and ensemble
Photo credit Bill Knight
Donizetti The Siege of Calais; Carby, Sides, Smith, Doyle, dir: Conway, cond: Silver; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire - Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 7 2015 - Star rating: 5.0 - Strong revival of dramatic bel canto opera

One of the major discoveries for me, of English Touring Opera's Spring 2013 season was how James Conway and the company had turned Donizetti's failed three-act grand opera L'Assedio di Calais into a concentrated two-act masterpiece as The Siege of Calais (see my 2013 review). For their Spring 2015 tour, which also includes Donizetti's Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo  (The Wild Man of the West Indies), ETO has revived James Conway's production of L'Assedio di Calais in Samal Blak's imaginative designs, with Paula Sides returning to the role of Eleanora and Catherine Carby as Aurelio (at some later performances the role will be sung by Helen Sherman who was in the original production). Craig Smith played Eustachio, with Andrew Glover, Matthew Stiff, Matt R J Ward and Jan Capinski as the other 'Burgers of Calais', Peter Brathwaite as a strange, Grant Doyle as Edoardo III (Edward III) and Ronan Busfield as Edmondo. Jeremy Silver conducted. We saw the opening night of the Spring 2015 tour, at Hackney Empire on Saturday 7 March 2015.

Donizetti's L'Assedio di Calais was premiered in Naples in 1836, the year after Lucia di Lammermoor was performed there. The work ceased being performed after 1840. It was not revived again until 1990 at the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, performances at the Wexford Festival followed in 1991. It has been staged twice by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, but English Touring Opera's performances in March 2013 were the work's professional UK stage premiere. The gestation of the opera wasn't untroubled, Donizetti did not have a satisfactory tenor and had to write the main male role for a musico, a mezzo-soprano singing en travestie (which was a rather old fashioned concept by then). And of course the famous Neapolitan censors got their hands on the work and any possibility that the last act might make sense was removed. Donizetti had half an eye on re-writing the work for Paris (as he did with Poliuto) but this never happened and in Naples the later outings of the work often took place without act three . ETO's programme book included an excellent article by James Conway about the work's troubled history with admirable detail on exactly what we were hearing.

Grant Doyle & ensemble - Donizetti - Siege of Calais - ETO - photo credit Bill Knight
Grant Doyle & ensemble
photo credit Bill Knight
Conway and Silver have re-shaped the piece into a remarkably concentrated two-act tragic work, without the original's lieto fine. And Conway has drawn a remarkably fine performance from his cast who give the opera with a rare intensity. What was impressive about the whole evening was the way the singers combined Donizetti's tragic music with the drama. The setting was roughly 20th century, with a huge drain as the main set, but there was no feeling of disjoint between music and setting. And the singers, made Donizetti's long lines count, and used them for the drama. This was not one of those performances where the critic keeps wincing because singers constantly move out of bel canto to help give what they perceive to be dramatic emphasis. Inevitably, with a young cast in a touring production (many singers are in more than one opera), not all the bel canto was perfect but it all was bel canto and along the way we had some superb sung drama. This was Donizetti at his best, with the company showing how Donizetti's finest tragic music and have a real dramatic force when performed by those who understand it.

Paula Sides, returning to Eleanora, brought a fierce intensity to the role which she combined with a strong sense of line that she used as a weapon (some lines, you could cut with a knife). Her first scene is a duet with her father-in-law, Eustachio (Craig Smith), lamenting the loss of Aurelio (her husband, his son), whose failed attempt to cross the enemy lines was depicted in the overture. Like many of the set pieces in the work, Donizetti was writing using standard closed forms but he brings an imaginative flexibility to their structures. Here Sides and Smith found an admirable severity and intensity (to over use the word) in the music.

Catherine Carby - Donizetti - Siege of Calais - ETO - photo credit Bill Knight
Catherine Carby
photo credit Bill Knight
Act two opens with one of the work's highlights for me. First Eleanora prays over the sleeping Aurelio, and then he wakes and the two sing a duet with Donizetti relishing the opportunities that the two voices singing in thirds gave him (you wonder what he would have done here if re-writing for soprano and tenor). Sides blended beautifully here with Catherine Carby's Aurelio, the two creating not only a believable dramatic relationship but also a satisfying musical one.

Carby is an experienced bel canto singer, I heard her as Bellini's Romeo with Chelsea Opera Group in 2014 (see my review) and she made a fine Aurelio, with some spectacular bravura moments. She has a voice with which she was able to exploit the role's wide range, with some strong low notes as well as a finely free dramatic top with the whole linked beautifully (as demonstrated in a dramatic descending scale). Like the rest of the cast, she used Donizetti's fioriture dramatically rather than for its own sake. But she was also dramatically believable as a young man, with an outfit which was credible rather than specifically flattering, so that no suspension of disbelief was required you simply forgot what sex she was.

Paula Sides & Craig Smith - Donizetti - Siege of Calais - ETO - photo credit Bill Knight
Paula Sides & Craig Smith
photo credit Bill Knight
Craig Smith as a dignified, upright Eustachio, with a superb sense of the drama in Donizetti's vocal line. Smith sang in ETO's Simon Boccanegra but I had never so far heard in bel canto, and he certain both knows the style and how to make it work with his voice. Not every mature baritone can move their voice with sufficient accuracy, but Smith can. His singing had both a feeling of accuracy and a dramatic truthfulness.

Grant Doyle sang the relatively small role of Edoardo, who however gets one very fine aria (moved very successfully from the cut act three to the opening of act one), and Doyle delivered this in finely confident manner, relishing his opportunity.

The smaller roles were all well cast, with Peter Brathwate as the stranger who incites the people to rebel at the end of act one, and Ronan Busfield as a supremely nasty Edmondo, Edoardo's captain. Andrew Glover, Matthew Stiff, Matt RJ Ward and Jan Capniski as the other Burgers of Calais. Donizetti gives the six, Carby, Smith and the above four, a wonderful sextet at the end of act two which is another of the work's highlights. The six found a profound dignity and beauty in the music.

Peter Brathwate - Donizetti - Siege of Calais - ETO - photo credit Bill Knight
Peter Brathwate
photo credit Bill Knight
The chorus gets plenty to do, particularly the men, who portray both the attacking English soldiers (in the first scene) and the populace of Calais in the remainder. The populace is a very active one, so there was lots of action. Conductor Jeremy Silver and the chorus have not quite yet sorted out the interaction between stage and pit in some of the more active ensembles, but this will come. And the chorus joined the principals in giving us some fine sung drama.

Historical note: the chorus in Naples in the 1830's was mixed, the men were full-time professional and the women not. So, as was common in Italy at the time, operas with chorus did not use the women till later in the opera as the women had first to be home putting children to bed etc, which is so many operas start with an all male chorus.

In the pit, Jeremy Silver conducted which brought a nice degree of finesse to Donizetti's score and a sense of sympathy, without any of the brisk 'lets get on with this so we can get home' feeling. Donizetti responds to being treated seriously, and he was here.

ETO is performing The Siege of Calais in repertory with Donizetti's The Wild Man of the West Indies and Puccini's La Boheme, they do the latter two in Hackney this week (11-14 March 2015) and are then on tour until the end of May, see the ETO website for details, with a final flourish at the Thalia Theatre, Budapest where the company is performing Donizetti's The Siege of Calais. Strictly, the performance on 7 March was not the company's season opener, as already they had premiered their new children's opera Shackleton's Cat (music by Russell Hepplewhite) and Waxwings, a new work for children with special needs and these two are being toured in tandem with the main house productions.
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