Donizetti wrote something like 70 operas. Although it is mainly the comedies which have survived in the repertoire, there are still gems waiting to be mined amongst the histories and melodramas. We have Opera Rara to thank for showing us the way; and last year WNO gave us Anna Bolena, Maria Stuada and Roberto Devereux as a package. In 2013 English Touring Opera revived The Siege of Calais. At the time James Conway, director not just of this production but of the company, said that he thought it was a work which should be performed regularly and to prove his point has waited just two years to revive it; and he has paired it with another Donizetti rarity Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo.
Conway writes in the programme “I fully expect that opinions will be divided between those who pronounce our Donizetti operas ‘welcome rediscoveries’ and those who gleefully decide they are ‘justly forgotten’, even by the interval.” Well, I am a huge fan of James Conway and will happily tolerate any off-piste diversions he decides to make. His leadership of ETO has been inspired. Librettist, translator, director and administrator, he is a man who cares deeply about the art form and bringing it to new audiences. He has never played safe, or dumbed down. Rather, he pushes the boundaries and explores the furthest reaches of the repertoire. His sequence of five Handel operas on successive evenings in 2009 was a resounding success; and the Olivier Award last year for Tippet’s King Priam and Britten’s Paul Bunyan (two typical ETO ‘rediscoveries’) was well-deserved.
It is probable that Donizetti chose the 1346 Siege of Calais as a subject in order to curry favour with the French prior to his move from Naples to Paris in 1838. History does not record the exact fate of the six Burghers of Calais. In Rossini’s version they volunteer to sacrifice their lives in a deal with the dastardly English king to save their city. The original opera had a short third act during which their lives are spared, but Conway has dispensed with this in favour of a more indeterminate and sombre ending. He has however plundered the Act for two of its best arias and inserted them into to Act1 and Act 2. Sensibly, he has kept the original cast and conductor that garnered four and five star reviews first time round. Craig Smith as Eustachio gives a performance of great dignity and gravitas, Helen Sherman in the trouser role of Aurelio his son and Paula sides as Aurelio's wife are outstanding. The story goes that a suitable tenor could not be found for the original production, hence the mezzo role. The result of course is the sort of bel canto writing for two female voices at which Donizetti excelled. The band sounded a little wheezy at first on the night I attended, but Conductor Jeremy Silver soon had them playing crisply and sonorously.
It is sometimes hard to imagine that the tumty-tum, and oom-cha-cha-cha of the conventional bel canto style could possibly lend themselves to subjects of a melodramatic or tragic nature. But it is what makes Donizetti so compelling a composer that he is able to transcend these conventions and produce music that captures the dark mood of this story. The prayer O sacra polve which the six chosen men sing towards the end of Act II as they contemplate their fate is music of great depth and beauty (mp3 file below).