It’s no surprise that most of Donizetti’s output is rarely performed, with many operas becoming obscure to many audiences. Only a few of his works have actually had a chance to make their way into the repertoire and remain there consistently. But this is not the case with “L’Assedio di Calais” which premiered in 1836 and has since been performed few times with a minuscule number of recordings. Thanks to the Glimmerglass Festival, the opera is finally getting a U.S. premiere. Audiences that dare to venture are in for a treat.
For those not familiar with the work, “Calais” follows Aurelio, son of the mayor of Calais, who flees the besieged homeland in order to return home. When he is finally reunited with his family he must make a choice to try and save his homeland. The piece moves at a swift pace with Donizetti concentrating on ensemble music rather than the usual arias. In essence, this is highly experimental stuff for the Italian maestro. However, it isn’t a perfect work and this mostly due to some choices in the libretto.
The second act in this version presented at Glimmerglass shows the King of England as underdeveloped, singing just one aria and appearing once again for the final concertato. All we get to see is a villainous and ambitious side, before eventually following his benevolent wife’s wishes.
The same can be said of Isabella, Queen of England, as she only gets a few recits and interludes as well as the concertato at end of the opera. Her character in this libretto seems more convenient as a plot device to save the citizens of Calais.
But these small deficiencies in the libretto can’t destroy the quality of music. After all, there are some highly popular bel canto operas that have rather ludicrous libretti (“La Sonnambula” anyone?).
In this opera Donizetti experiments with ensemble pieces like a sextet in the second act which is carried by five males and one female voice. The sextet starts a cappella before the orchestra enters and chorus follows. It’s a nod to some of the work that Verdi would later do in his famed concertati for “Macbeth,” among others. And then there is the soprano-mezzo duet. Donizetti famously wrote the “Anna Bolena” duet that works more as a conversational passage where the soprano and mezzo rarely sing together. However in this musical showcase, “Io l’udia chiamarmi a nome” Donizetti gives the soprano and mezzo unison lines where the voices have to blend. It’s very much a reminder of the duet “Mira o Norma” from Bellini’s “Norma.”
The composer also experiments with more florid work in the cabalettas that remind the listener of Rossini’s virtuosic coloratura runs. You can hear it at the end of the mezzo-soprano aria where Donizetti asks the voice to sing through scales spanning the entire range of the voice.
And the chorus also has numerous moments to shine with three ensembles and accompanying the singers at the end of arias. There is also no lead tenor role, which is an oddity for Donizetti whose works almost always contained a tenor as the hero. As for the tradition of the entrance aria, only two of the characters get this chance. Eleonora nor Eustachio, who are leads, never get a formal aria. These interesting musical moments allow the listener to discover another side of the beloved composer that is rarely heard.
Francesca Zambello has set the story in modern day, evoking the horrors of war. It is immediately seen when one walks into the theater. John Noone’s set places a broken car filled with debris on stage left with garbage bags and the words Calais written as graffiti painted on a dark decaying metal barrier which eventually opens to reveal ruins of a destroyed building that works as the set for the rest of the evening. The detail of the set is so unique the production pulls the viewer in immediately.
As the set rotates on the turntable for the first scene with Eleonora and Eustachio, it reveals a demolished staircase that leads to a hidden corridor that emulates a destroyed apartment. This new locale is filled with firewood and flags as well as pictures, and television sets. You can already feel the destruction of war just from looking at this scenery. For the subsequent duet between Eleonora and Aurelio, the set rotates to show their room hidden underneath the stairs. One can see the environment inhabited with a sink, a cot, chairs and a refrigerator, all crammed tightly. These details allow the overall narrative to feel more timely and evoke the 21st Century Calais, which until recently, was under “siege” with masses of immigrants and refugees.
As with any Bel Canto opera beautiful singing is required and in this case, the festival had two incredibly beautiful voices on hand to pull off the virtuosic music as well as the dramatic moments.
Aleks Romano sang the lead role of Aurelio, a pants role, with swagger and charisma as well as with a dramatic force. The moment she enters the stage it was evident that this Aurelio was determined to return home. Romano tricked soldiers in order to get the necessary tools from their backpack and immediately ran away when discovered. During the entrance aria, Romano sounded a bit nervous in her opening lines, but her singing eventually took on a creamy sound that expressed the joy of Aurelio’s return. The phrasing connected each line with a mezzo piano, transitioning into the florid lines with ease. With each phrase, the voice crescendoed as the aria took on a march-like tone that eventually led to a cadenza that showcased Romano’s gleaming upper range. The subsequent cavatina saw Romano possess a more heroic timbre with full tone and greater vigor. There was authority as she dispatched the coloratura lines.
Then in the mezzo-soprano duet, Romano revealed anguish and a dramatic force as she sang about Aurelio’s dream of seeing Calais being destroyed. The voice took on a darker tone and her movements gave off more instability. Each phrase was more melancholic in tone, matching those qualities of her Eleonora, Leah Crocetto. As the duet developed Crocetto and Romano blended their voices creating a tender effect. In the second half of the duet, as it is announced that Calais will be pardoned, Crocetto and Romano’s voices took on brighter hue. They hugged one another as they began performing the joyful section, each relishing the coloratura and creating different variations. Their timbres once again blended and they sang with the agility required. As the music moved toward the climax, they also moved the tempo forward.
In the second act, Romano’s voice once again took on an authoritative sound. When Aurelio decides to sacrifice his life for his country, Romano moved about the stage with a despondent attitude. She jumped on top of the car and sang with an authoritative timbre. This Aurelio was resolute on freeing his country even if it meant losing his family. But the melancholic tone returned as Romano sang the sextet “Preghiera.” The voice once again darkened as Romano kneeled to the ground and sang with full-bodied sound. Her voice grew stronger toward the climax, eventually rising above the chorus and the other five soloists. At the end of the opera, Romano’s singing was radiant, a furtive embrace with Crocetto ensuing.
As Eleonora, Crocetto relished each moment as she sang with incredible agility and gleaming high notes. Though she is known for her work in the Verdi and the verismo repertoire, it is evident in this opera that Crocetto is right at home with Bel canto. Not only does she sing it beautifully and with incredible breath control, but she is very attuned to the text and adds an extra layer of drama. From her entrance onwards, it was evident that she was invested in her character, delivering with vocal heft during the recitative, each word clear as day. However, there was a lighter complexion of sound during the duet with Eustachio. She sang with a mezza voce sound, holding each line out to blend her phrasing with that of her Eustachio, Adrian Timpau. While Timpau sang with full power that brought forth pain, Crocetto gave the lines a nostalgic feel. In the second portion of the duet when they receive good news that Aurelio is returning, their voices took on brighter complexion, albeit still singing with vigor. As Crocetto ended the duet, she tossed off a gleaming high D, showing off her incredible range.
Crocetto’s “Rondo finale” cabaletta, was even more proof why this soprano deserves to be singing more of this repertoire. Here she showed her agility, gliding through the difficult coloratura Donizetti gives the soprano. In the Cadenza ending the first part, Crocetto embellished with more florid lines holding each note and decrescendoing to a piano whisper. In the repeat, she played with the music, giving it more coloratura and clearly singing with delight before unifying her voice with Romano to end the Rondo.
But it was not all coloratura and virtuosic singing that made Crocetto’s portrayal so dynamic. It was the fact that she also got to use her full voice in the concertati. In these sections, her voice melted into the lines and delivered a masterclass in the lush Italianate sound. Each line grew in power, but without ever covering the rest of her colleagues.
Eustachio and Other cast members
Adrian Timpau possesses a dramatic baritone voice that easily fills the theater. He sings with an emotional pull, allowing audiences to really feel each line he delivers. From the moment he sang his opening passages, it was evident that he was invested in the character and, as noted, he sang with vigor and power in the opening duet. But the moment that really stood out was the sextet. During his solo line, he showcased his full power, singing with nostalgia as he said goodbye to his country. He made a case for being a baritone to look out for.
As Eduardo, king of England, Michael Hewitt moved about with control as he celebrated his triumph over the people of Calais. His voice rang with a suave tone, even if sometimes, it slid out of tune. Yet his silvery tone could easily dispatch the florid lines of Donizetti’s cavatinas with ease.
As Isabella, Queen of England, Helena Brown brought about a beautiful spinto soprano that showed promise. However, this role, which consists mostly of recitatives and a final concertato, did not allow Brown to completely show her talent.
The ensemble of singers that include Chaz’men Williams-Ali, Makoto Winkler, Zachary Owen, Joseph Leppek, Carlo Du Pont and Andres Moreno Garcia all added a solid balance to the ensemble.
Lastly, the chorus was superb in each ensemble Donizetti gives them. From beautiful piano lines to great outpours, each moment was sublime. In many ways, the choruses written in this piece seem to have inspired Verdi for “Nabucco.” The ensemble is present throughout the piece and plays a crucial role. They are present at the beginning when they are searching for Aurelio and also present for the celebration of his return. They contribute to the sextet, adding a rousing tone to the beautiful music and also contribute to the final concertato where the citizens of Calais plead for forgiveness. Each moment allows the chorus to participate and develop as a complete character.
In the pit, Joseph Colaneri conducted the Glimmerglass Orchestra with swift tempi, always moving the music forward. Among the highlights were the cello interlude in the sextet. The cellists phrased each line with melancholy but never belabored the tempi, the accompaniment adding an extra layer of sorrow and pain. Another highlight included the duet as the orchestra’s syncopated 3/4 rhythm blended beautifully into the Crocetto and Romano’s voices.
Overall, the Glimmerglass Festival has put together a superb team to bring this opera to the U.S. for the first time ever. With Francesca Zambello’s realistic production and Leah Crocetto and Aleks Romano’s lush voices, one hopes this opera will gain traction worldwide, eventually playing at some of the most renowned theaters in the world.