Catherine Carby leads an Aussie invasion at the Siege of Calais.

Hackney Empire, London
March 2015

Donizetti is not universally liked. Some opera lovers find his oom-pah-pah rhythms and formulaic structure just a little too predictable. Those musicians who know how to approach his work in true bel canto style are able to reveal the glories beyond the surface. It’s maybe a risk mounting productions of two of his lesser-known works, but the gamble pays off handsomely and is a triumph for the company.

Audiences were buzzing with anticipation on both opening nights, especially for premiere of The Wild Man of the West Indies, but also because The Siege of Calais was receiving a well-deserved second airing. The fact that Richard Bonynge made the effort to attend both first nights goes a long way to validate their achievements.

Donizetti was not satisfied with The Siege of Calais after its first performances in 1833. He never liked the structure and felt Act Three to be the weakest. There is evidence from his own letters that he intended to make revisions, possibly shrinking the three acts into two and revising the final stages of the plot. Director James Conway and conductor Jeremy Silver have tried to fulfil Donizetti’s wishes and created a tight, two act opera, which runs for just over two hours with interval. Some of the better music is saved from the cuts and successfully used in other scenes. What we are presented with are some wonderful choral moments, a tight score and plot, and some glorious ensemble writing. 

The setting is the 14th-century siege of Calais by the war-like English King Edward III and the story of the town’s six burghers (later immortalised by the sculptor Rodin). The theme is endurance and collective responsibility rather than nationalism. This still has the power to resonate with audiences today as the word siege is often headlined in the news. Samal Blak’s clever design underlines this timeless appeal.

Australian mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby shares the trouser role of Aurelio (the mayor’s son) with fellow Australian Helen Sherman who created the role in the 2013 production. Carby is a convincing stage actor with an impressive voice. She is secure in her middle range, agile with her top note decoration and her lower register is complex and powerful. Her rich and resonant tones are a pleasure to listen to and she is fully in control of the emotional impact this role demands.

Baritone Craig Smith (Eustachio) is a little shaky at first but settles in to give a dignified and solid account of this important role. Paula Sides as Eleonora (Aurelio’s wife) sings beautifully creating some moving duets with Carby. New Zealand tenor Andrew Glover (Giovanni) acts well, but the voice needs work in the upper register where he sounds rather strained (this may be a temporary problem due to the intensity of pre tour rehearsals).

The chorus are in fine voice, sounding like twice their number and creating a real impact in the ensemble pieces. They can be well described as a disciplined group of soloists, fully in tune with the demands of the opera and they deserve real credit. The conductor, Jeremy Silver, sets a cracking pace for the evening, but never lacks subtly and sensitivity in his interpretation. Donizetti is in safe hands.

In this revised format, The Siege of Calais is an opera that merits further productions. This ETO revival shows it can be commercially viable for a small company and it deserves a wider audience both within and outside the UK. If interested, Opera Rara have a two disc set of L’Assedio di Calais which is unavailable in hard copy, but you can get a download on line for around $30.

I liked many things about The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il Furioso all’isola di San Domingo). Among them was Florence De Mare’s clever design and some world class singing, but mostly because the central character who had gone mad due to betrayal is a baritone. This change from the normal misogyny of the period is one of the things that makes you listen more carefully to the music, which is ably conducted by Jeremy Silver.

Donizetti may have taken away the distressed soprano, but modern audiences are made to face another uncomfortable reality, that of Caribbean slavery.  Director Iqbal Khan makes much of this in his program notes, but frankly he misses the point as I shall discuss later.

Versions of the libretto appear elsewhere in the form of plays based on a story told by Cervantes in his book Don Quixote.  There is even believed to be a version by Shakespeare and Fletcher called Cardenio and performed a few years ago by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The story certainly has Shakespearean qualities with its theme of betrayal, storms and shipwrecks followed by reconciliation.

Musically the opera is more recognisably from the Donizetti stable with a challenging soprano role superbly sung by South African singer Sally Silver. If you like complex, highly decorative arias you will not be disappointed. The title baritone role is movingly sung by Craig Smith. His Verdi credentials pay off handsomely as he portrays the depths of despair in this broken man. There is also an appropriate change of tone to suit the plot twists we witness at the end of the opera when Cardenio is reconciled to his wife Eleonora. The progress towards their eventual reconciliation contains some exquisite music and is of a standard to be found elsewhere in Donizetti’s more familiar work. Musically it is the better of the two operas and it also contains some fine ensemble writing.

Peter Braithwaite sings the important role of Cardenio’s slave Kaidama. His is a fine comic performance using excellent timing, agile voice and occasional bathos. There is a more than one brutal master, and he is beaten, but it is all in the context of a comic role seen as part of a semi-seria opera. He reminded me a little of Leporello or a character from Goldoni’s play A Servant of Two Masters. The audience is his friend and we are treated to some witty commentary on the plot. This is not slavery in a totally offensive format. He may be physically restrained but he is the one mentally and emotionally free.

Mention should also be made of the baritone Njabulo Madlala who sings the plantation manager. His rich authoritative tones were impressive and he has the makings of a first class singer. Nicholas Sharratt proved to be an able tenor in his role as Cardenio’s brother and erstwhile lover of Eleonora. He had a well-focused and beautifully toned voice and certainly moved the audience during his more despairing moments. My pleasure was only a little diminished by hearing some strained top notes but hopefully this will not be a permanent feature.

Rather than being brave I think ETO has been clever in reviving these rarities. These are operas worth listening to and I would rather hear them from time to time than sit through repeated performances of the more standard Donizetti repertoire. Musically Wild Man of the West Indies may be the better piece, but for me it is The Siege of Calais that makes the most theatrical impact bringing its chorus truly alive. When it was premiered in Naples in 1836 there were no less than three opera houses offering simultaneous productions to accommodate a public hungry for Donizetti’s work. This just goes to show they can’t all have been wrong.