Guildhall School of Music – L’assedio di Calais

L’assedio di Calais – Dramma Lirico in three acts to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano [sung in Italian]

Eustachio de Saint-Pierre – Matthew Sprange
Aurelio – Máire Flavin
Eleonora – Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon
Giovanni d’Aire – Leonel Pinheiro
Giacomo de Visantis – Charlie Mellor
Armando – Matthew Wright
Pietro de Visantis – Matthew Stiff
Edmondo – Thomas Herford
Edoardo III – Alexander Robin Baker
Queen of England – Elena Sancho-Pereg

Chorus & Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
David Angus

Alessandro Talevi – Director
Madeleine Boyd – Designer
Matthew Haskins – Lighting
Victoria Newlyn – Movement

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 5 November, 2009
Venue: Guildhall Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

As the helpful programme note reminded, it was the Guildhall School of Music and Drama that gave Donizetti’s “L’assedio di Calais” its belated UK stage premiere on 3 March 1993, and here it was giving what is probably the second UK staging!

Madeleine Boyd’s design makes clever use of a simple single-unit platform set, from under which the members of the chorus when representing the hungry citizens of besieged Calais emerge. Their first appearance was a powerful image. There is also clever use of lighting – the underneath of the platform remains obscured except where necessary, and not least the sudden deployment of brightness at the moment at the end of the second act when the six burghers of Calais venture towards the English camp to face execution to save the rest of the inhabitants of their beleaguered city. That scene concludes one of Donizetti’s great concerto finales, although in this piece there is an equally fine closing to the first act as well. As Donizetti himself realised, the final act is rather weaker, and he sanctioned staged performances without it. From this staging one can see how this would be rather effective dramatically, despite the narrative remaining unresolved. And indeed it would be a loss if the first two acts were not encountered occasionally!

There are several significant roles in this opera, each singer with some attractive arias and duets, and all needing excellent technique both in terms of a long sense of line, legato and also agile coloratura. Perhaps the most demanding role of all is the young hero Aurelio, one of those great mezzo-soprano trouser-roles, which at this performance should have been taken by Hanna Hipp, but she was indisposed and replaced by Máire Flavin (due at later performances). I’m not sure how much notice she had, but she acquitted herself well. She has an attractive and mellow voice and was generally convincing in her portrayal of the headstrong young man. Her voice lacks a bit of power, and her vocal line should have dominated the ensemble in the council-chamber scene finale more than it did – something one can imagine Marilyn Horne taking-on with great effect. Flavin’s vocal agility was never in doubt, however, and she blended extremely well with Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon’s lovely creamy soprano. Their Act Two duet was one of the highlight. Deacon dominated every scene she was in and sang her long cantilena with touching sincerity; she undoubtedly has a good career ahead of her.

Matthew Sprange was also in fine voice as Eustachio de Saint-Pierre, the mayor of Calais and Aurelio’s father. He has a well-rounded and focussed baritone, with an attractive incisive tone, and he convinced as the elder man in an impossible situation.

In the smaller roles Leonel Pinheiro made an impression as Giovanni d’Aire, although at his first appearance both tone and volume were somewhat unremitting. The other burghers of Calais did what they could with their relatively unrewarding parts – though their contributions to the council scene as the volunteer to self-sacrifice were effective. Elena Sancho-Pereg did a nice line dramatically as a Kristin Scott-Thomas lookalike Queen of England, and she sang with bright clear tone. Opposite her Alexander Robin Baker, nicely though he sang, struggled a little with the role of Edoardo III – but that was more the fault of librettist and composer who wrote words and music that almost make the part something of a caricature. Certainly his decision to stay the execution of the burghers is rather perfunctory and therefore almost comic.

The chorus was marvellously full-throated and the choreography well-handled whether stylised as English soldiers, or more fluid as the Calais populace. Alessandro Talevi’s direction kept the tension of the piece going well, especially in the earlier acts.

Mention must be made of the players in the pit under David Angus. There was some excellent playing by the cellos at the start of the work that evokes the mood within the Calais, and some excellent clarinet-playing at the start of the second act. They caught the essential Donizetti well, and one often sat and relished the felicities of the orchestration – right down to the gently undulating accompaniments of many of the arias and duets, which certainly helped to make this staging a more than worthy revival.

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