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Donizetti The Siege of Calais

EnglishTouring Opera

Hackney Empire,
9 March 2013


A revelatory production of a different Donizetti, a compact historical drama which brings to life the Rodin sculpture outside the Palace of Westminster, well known to Londoners and visitors to the capital.

Everything came together at Hackney's lovely old theatre, an ideal venue for opera. The acoustics are excellent and with the strong raking of the stalls (c.p. flat at ENO's Coliseum) there was a good view from the press seats near the back and the sound of the 28-piece orchestra completely belied ETO's economy.

The staging inside and outside the city wall was ingenious and each member of the production team made a significant contribution to the satisfying whole, with director James Conway's essay in the indispensible programme book putting it all in perspective. The illustration below is but one example of Richard Hubert Smith's graphic picture gallery on ETO's website.

The large cast was deployed perfectly, with a chorus of believable individuals caught in a doomed situation and the leading characters well differentiated.

Of the present cast I would pick out Eddie Wade as the leader of the city, mezzo Helen Shermann wonderfully convincing as his son Aurelio [centre, picture R] and Paula Sides as his wife Eleonora, their duet towards the end one of the most moving scenes in the evening.

The subtle final scenes depict the transition from the community's defiance unto death to acceptance of the cruel terms of an agreement which demanded the sacrifice of six leading citizens as its price.

Conway's concentrated version sensibly jettisoned the appearance of the Queen and a ballet scene (de rigeur in Paris) and there was a moving simplicity about the departure of the leaders of the besiege community to their slaughter, which is left to our imaginations in contrast to a similar scene in which Poulenc's Carmelites are guillotined one by one...

Della Jones, Aurelio in the famous Opera Rara recording of L'assedio di Calais, coached ETO's singers for this new production, which urgently needs to be filmed for a DVD.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also Mark Ronan's review

and The Telegraph's which deplores Conway's changes
from the original PGW