Donzetti’s The Siege of Calais finished its American première run at the Glimmerglass Festival on Saturday. Dating from 1836, this Donizetti rarity dramatizes a key event in the history of French nationalism. When the English King Edward III laid siege to Calais, he offered to spare the town if they sent six citizens of noble birth to the English camps to be killed. However, when the captives arrive, Queen Isabella, King Edward’s wife, interceded on their behalf and Edward offered the prisoners clemency.

19th-century operas would occasionally introduce fictional characters into actual historical events in order to explore the relationship between the personal and the political. The Siege of Calais is an example as its centers on the Mayor of Calais, Eustachio, and his son, Aurelio, who is fleeing his homeland as the English threaten to hunt him. Aurelio tells his wife, Eleonora, that he had a dream in which he saw Calais destroyed and their son murdered. When King Edward makes the decree to the people of Calais, Eustachio and his son are the first to volunteer.

Throughout the course of his career Donizetti wrote about 60 operas. The Siege of Calais is very similar to early Verdi operas like Nabucco both in how the subject matter appealed to contemporary Italian nationalism and in its compositional structure, which included the use of a chorus and the alternation between bombastic and intimate music.

The Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, always does themed seasons. This year the season was about the idea of home. As such, the production directed by Francesca Zambello was updated from the Middle Ages to a modern-day refugee camp. There were several compelling moments such as in the opening chorus of the first act in which the English army marched into the refugee camp looking like something straight-out of a Nazi propaganda film. Later on, when Eleonora received news that her husband was on his way home, she sang the duet with her father-in-law while looking at family photos in a frame.

The conductor Joseph Colaneri gave a varied reading of the score which was equal parts pomp and sentimentality. The role of the husband Aurelio was written as a trouser role. The female voice in this case really helps to depict how young this French freedom fighter is. Aleks Romano had a flexible voice which was particularly adapt at vocal ornamentation. She would be ideal for heroic mezzo roles by Rossini like Tancredi.

The leading lady is a difficult role to cast, much like Verdi’s Abigaille in Nabuco. The singer has to have both power and lyricism.  Leah Crocetto had a very sweet voice which was shown better in her solo arias. Unfortunately, her higher register was slightly pinched. Nonetheless she blended well with the mezzo during the duets in the later part of the opera.

Adrian Timpau’s steady baritone was as Eustachio. With his smooth voice and ringing timbre, he’s an ideal Verdi baritone. Among the smaller roles, Andres Moreno Garcia displayed a strong tenor as Edmundo, Edward’s general, and Queen Isabella, played by Helena Brown, lent dignity and power to her brief but crucial role.