A Night at the Opera The Siege of Calais- an unsung masterpiece

A Night at the Opera The Siege of Calais- an unsung masterpiece

22 May 2013 

Donizetti is a dazzling draw for opera-goers. A prolific composer he never seems to fail to delight audiences with his thrilling music and driving stories. Back a Donizetti opera and you’re in for a good night out. And surely that is the theory that persuaded a keen audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre on Tuesday to book in for The Siege of Calais, a work very few people have heard of – and even fewer have seen performed. To claim this is a rarity is an understatement. It’s a positive unknown.
But what a wonderful prize for anyone adventurous enough to voyage beyond the safe world of opera standards - the Siege of Calais is a magnificent lyrical and absorbing opera. Its scope and confidence simply swell as the evening unfolds.
Here are melodies never heard by the most ardent opera fans, and music unrevealed since its first performance in 1836 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. By one of those flukes which flash from time to time in the world of the arts, director James Conway saw the unknown Siege of Calais in his native Country Wexford in Ireland and was so moved by its compelling theme – the pity and suffering wrought by conflict, he went back for the second performance and fell for the entire intense concept hook line and sinker. Now as the stylish and – if his initial address to the audience last night is anything to go by – hugely charming director at the English Touring Opera, he has the chance to bring his boyhood delight back to life.
It is no wonder the play is so resonant. It is about war. The set, brilliantly realised by the genius of theatre designer Samal Blak, opens on a bitterly bleak scene.  A menacing concrete pipe looms up into the stage space forming a barrier between the aggressive soldiers on one side of the story – and the distraught and desperate civilians within. This feature, a shattered giant fragment of civic infrastructure, forms a potent central symbol of all that is wrong, brutal and destructive about conflict. Around the siege nothing survives. Only rubble, destruction, desolation prevail. With very little imagination we are suddenly in the streets of Syria, and the strutting militaristic Edoardo III is the brutal Assad character set on annihilation of the suffering populace. Cozmin Sime sings this dictator’s obduracy in furious form, a man set on conquest, indifferent to more murder, used to brutal obedience. His voice implies it all brilliantly.

Inside the walls of Calais (or Aleppo today) huddle the defiant citizenry lead by Eustachio  sung by Eddie Wade). So subtle and brilliant is this character’s acting and so moving his singing, we are immediately convinced. Here is a city leader who has had enough, his people are dying (and turning on him  - in one nasty scene the starving townsfolk come for Eustachio’s blood) and his own son is missing. His grandson is losing his tenuous grasp on life. With him in his bleak clear-eyed near-despair is his daughter, Eleonara, sung with infinite compassion combined with technical brio, by Paula Sides. In her blue coat, a disturbing daub of colour against the drab khaki backdrop of the set, she provides a humane beacon of all that is meaningful and brave about humanity.
Her husband, Aurelio, who returns from his courageous quest in the besiegers’ camp is strangely cast in a trouser role and sung with commanding confidence  - and brilliance - by contralto Helen Sherman. Excellent throughout, her zenith comes in one memorable scene. Aurelio wakes on the eve of battle to re-live a dream he has had. In his dream his son was massacred before him as he lay pinned down, unable to help him as the child reached out his little arms in pleading.
The two parents, their voices blending in anguish over their suffering child formed for me the centre of this moving opera .The simplicity of love simply soared from these two singers in their aria– and strangely it mattered not that they were both played by women and only emphasised in a subliminal nod at perceptions of sex roles, the essential oneness of all humanity. The impact of violence and war on the innocent is truly and unsung theme in history. In this superb opera, it is contrasted with the bravura singing from the strong voices of the citizens and soldier chorus who call for patriotism death and glory.
The harrowing story ends in harmonically sublime music. Cruel Edoardo demands the sacrifice of six leading citizens, a humiliation he claims for the freedom on the city. Anguished, Eustachio and his son both volunteer for a shameful death by hanging, an arbitrary piece of sadism aimed at stamping the conqueror’s victory over these helpless people. They go bravely to their deaths – paying the price for a peace they hope will come.
The final music was truly emotional. Here was an opera that gave a deeply moving account of the human condition and offered a bleak and unblinking view of its darkest and also its most agonizingly heroic potential.
The English Touring Opera continues this week at the Arts theatre with Mozart’s Così fan tutte showing on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 May and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra taking to the stage on Saturday 25 May. Plus they will return next year with a surprising range of little known operas. Their orchestra is inspired, a treat in itself , performing under Conductor Jeremy Silver with thrilling precision.  If any one of them is half as good as this, they will be well worth signing up for. Is opera irrelevant? This inspired production says defiantly ‘no’. Is it expensive?  All I can say is that for £35 a ticket you can get a good meal out  - but can you end up with a truly moving and life enhancing experience? I  very much doubt it.

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