The Siege of Calais (English Touring Opera – Tour)

Donizetti’s ”L’assedio di Calais” in an early but timely revival by ETO

Catherine Carby as Aurelio and Paula Sides as Eleonora in The Siege of Calais (ETO)
Catherine Carby as Aurelio and Paula Sides as Eleonora in The Siege of Calais (ETO)
© Bill Knight

We could be in Iraq today, or Ukraine tomorrow, as a besieged community reaches the tipping point between starvation and surrender. Director James Conway has conceived the most persuasive of updatings for Donizetti’s 1836 opera The Siege of Calais, in a production that first toured with similar forces two years ago but now seems more pertinent than ever.

The notorious 14th-century siege by the English is still well known thanks to Rodin’s bronze, 'The Burghers of Calais', which many a day-tripper will have happened across while shopping for souvenirs. As annihilation threatened, terms were agreed whereby six citizens would volunteer themselves as victims to save the rest. Donizetti’s opera is a romanticised version of their story.

It’s always tempting to think that neglected works by major composers must be broken-backed in some way – either dramatically deficient or musically below par – but that’s not the case in what English Touring Opera has given us, because Conway has excised the opera’s weak third act and imported some of its key material into earlier scenes. The result is an opera that’s fast, fluid and surprisingly moving, and a performing version that deserves to be taken up elsewhere.

This will do nicely for now, though. Strongly cast for the most part and startlingly well lit by Mark Howland against designer Samal Blaƙ‘s devastated modern landscape, the production packs an emotional punch. The writing for chorus is particularly stirring, and the company’s thirteen-strong ensemble delivers it with the eloquence of twice that number under Jeremy Silver‘s baton.

Grant Doyle – luxury casting – excels in his brief role as Edouardo III, the bad, bad English king, and Craig Smith is dignity personified as the noble Eustachio, leader of the stricken city.

At the production’s heart, although only for the first half of ETO's extensive spring tour, is a performance as the tragic Aurelio (a trouser role for mezzo-soprano) that ranks among the year’s high points to date. Catherine Carby sings, loves and suffers with such conviction that it’s impossible not to be moved by her, nor to revel in her rich timbre, especially in the duets she shares with the similarly compelling Paula Sides as the hero's wife, Eleonora. Between the two of them they dominate the opera in more ways than one.

Their performances are all the more remarkable given that elsewhere the staging takes scant interest in dramatic interplay. Too many passages of choric stand-and-deliver diminish the impact of scenes that would otherwise be emotionally affecting. Conway apparently sees that side of things as Donizetti’s responsibility. To an extent that’s true, but modern operatic theatre demands rather more.

Following its opening at the Hackney Empire, The Siege of Calais tours to Poole, Sheffield, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Exeter, Crawley, Canterbury, Blackpool, Durham and Cambridge.