Glimmerglass can take credit for the first performance ever in the United States of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais this past summer. However, Odyssey Opera has now gone one better, premiering the original three-act version with every note Donizetti wrote in 1836, including cabaletta repeats. The only editing involved the Act 3 ballet divertissement, which the composer himself eventually cut because it stifled the drama’s momentum. Gil Rose kept the two numbers Donizetti wrote “The Dance of the Scottish Prisoners” and “The Dance in Armor” but employed them as an entr’acte and discarded the two numbers by Antonio Vaccaro. Glimmerglass jettisoned the ballet music completely and created a hybrid, two-act version which, for example, retained Queen Isabella in the last scene but also included Eleanora’s rondo finale from a revision in which that role was cut.

<i>L'assedio di Calais</i> © Kathy Wittman
L'assedio di Calais
© Kathy Wittman

L’assedio di Calais was the thirteenth opera composed for the Teatro San Carlo, following the previous year’s Lucia di Lammermoor. It was a deliberate attempt on Donizetti’s part to internationalize his style and attract the attention of the Opéra de Paris with its lucrative contracts, so he adopted French conventions of dramaturgy and opera composition, choosing a popular French subject with the requisite lieto fine and including a ballet. However, the story of the Burghers of Calais, preserved most notably in Froissart’s Chronicles, is one of honor, patriotism, and selfless sacrifice – unusual qualities to be at the center of the drama of a Donizetti opera. There is no love story, not even a leading tenor, but an intimate family drama revolving around fathers and sons where the solo aria takes second place to duets, trios, and ensembles. Lower voices, both male and female, dominate with Eustachio, a baritone, as the lead and the soprano, Eleanora, shorn of coloratura pyrotechnics, subordinate musically to the mezzo of her husband, Aurelio.

Even the first scene is unprecedented: after a seven-measure prelude, the curtain rises on a pantomime of Aurelio sneaking into the English camp, stealing food, then being discovered and manhandled by the soldiers, all played out to a forty-measure larghetto which precedes the soldiers’ chorus, in Odyssey’s production sung by the most sonorous group of ten men you’re ever likely to hear. They projected the weight and force of a group twice their size and literally set the tone for the rest of this very masculine opera. 

James Westman (Eustachio) © Kathy Wittman
James Westman (Eustachio)
© Kathy Wittman

A strong cast and strong leadership by Gil Rose (occasionally too strong)  made an even stronger case for the opera’s place in the repertory as well as its suitability for an intimate venue. James Westman had the commanding voice – a powerful, hardwood baritone – and presence for the noble and defiant Eustachio. He might want to reconsider clenching his fist so much for dramatic emphasis though, since the voice tends to tighten as well. Lucia Cesaroni’s mellow, amber timbre gives a high mezzo tint to her lower and middle voice and a firm foundation for the secure soprano extension which grows out of it, organic and not tacked on. When she blended with the polished onyx of Magda Gartner’s Aurelio for Act 2’s “Io l’udi a chiamarmi a nome” with its elaborate cadenza, the timbres married like the characters they embodied. Both women expertly and judiciously embellished the duet’s cabaletta repeat. Aurelio is an impetuous firebrand, unlike his more measured father, Eustachio. He is scrappy and fierce in his defiance of the English. Gartner had the power and bite for that aspect of the character and the refinement for Act 3’s tender “Raddoppia i baci tuoi”. These are definitely two voices to watch. The remainder of the cast was uniformly excellent and contributed to the feeling of total dramatic commitment which crossed the footlights.

<i>L'assedio di Calais</i> © Kathy Wittman
L'assedio di Calais
© Kathy Wittman

Blocks of grey stone fortifications were shifted and spun to quickly and efficiently create the various settings while the costumes reflected identity with simplicity, muted pastels the dominant palette for the people of Calais and touches of gold and silver for the royals. Director Joshua Major created a high energy staging adding a few touches of his own, making Queen Isabella visibly pregnant – so more plausibly susceptible to the mothers’ pleas for mercy – and closing the opera as it opened with a pantomime of gratitude redirected by Edward toward his wife.

Though a success during its initial run, L’assedio did not duplicate Lucia’s popularity and never made it beyond Naples let alone to Paris. Donizetti would have to wait for the French remake of Poliuto (Les Martyrs) to finally reach the stage of the Opéra four years later. Opera companies today, however, should not hesitate to follow Odyssey’s example and consider producing L’assedio di Calais.