Opera Scotland

Assedio di Calais 2013English Touring Opera

Read more about the opera Siege of Calais

In the decade or more that English Touring Opera has visited the Perth Festival, the general standard of performance has been quite remarkably high. Even so, there have been few evenings more satisfying than this revelatory production of Donizetti's grim-themed war piece. His specific subject is the medieval siege of Calais by Edward III's English forces, but it would work effectively in a Trojan War setting, and seemed quite comfortable as presented on this occasion in a specifically twentieth century  design scheme, apparently the siege of Stalingrad. 

Opening an attractive programme of three operas, Siege of Calais was the rarity on offer. It is an uneven work that nevertheless overflows with great musical drama. Produced by students at London's Guildhall School as recently as 1993, it had since been offered by Academy students in Glasgow. This therefore is the first professional staging in Britain, and surely it should now be on its way to further productions and the general repertoire.

The plot concerns the famed Burghers of Calais, volunteering to sacrifice themselves to save the other citizens. But English King Edward III, carrying out the siege, turns out to be rather a softie, and all ends happily. If there was anything controversial about this praiseworthy enterprise it was the rejigging of the work itself. The original third act happy ending is perfunctory - the Queen arrives in the nick of time to beg for mercy, and there is a ballet. It is believed that the composer would have performed major surgery on his work given the opportunity. Here the final act was removed, and the appearance of the King, in which he anticipates victory, was moved to the openiing scene. His role was also expanded to incorporate the part of his envoy who delivers the fatal ultimatum. The performance ended with the tragic but ennobling climax of the second act, as the six volunteers troop off to their doom.

The opera contains many musical highlights, perhaps most obviously the fabulous duet for soprano and mezzo at the beginning of the second act - comparable to similar sequences in Anna Bolena and Norma. The first act contains several novel choruses that build up a sense of unease and desperation among the citizens. The two act finales produce a real head of steam, and there is a great sequence as the chosen men sign up for death and then contemplate their end.

Naples had run out of decent tenors for its 1836 season (what would Rossini have done in those circumstances?), so the lead part is a cracker of a trousers role for a good dramatic mezzo. The young Australian Helen Sherman was particularly impressive, with technically perfect singing, a beautiful tone, and an astonishingly immediate ability to act. Paula Sides has now sung a good range of roles in Perth, from Mozart to Puccini, but this showed her at her best, with a lovely sweet tone and an easy top. The great duet was only one example of their superb vocalism.

Eddie Wade played the part of Eustachio very effectively, his soft-grained baritone contrasting effectively with the more incisive style of Cozmin Sime as the King. There was also an effective, if brief, appearance by Piotr Lempa as a spy stirring up the populace. The contribution of Jeremy Silver and the orchestra was consistently excellent.

The central feature of Samal Blak's design, a rotating cylinder, part-wall, part-sewer, and finally a tunnel, always strikingly lit, added hugely to the atmosphere.

After such a powerful opening the visit continued with Simon Boccanegra and Così fan tutte, though the Siege was a hard act to follow.

Performance Cast

Eustachio de Saint-Pierre Mayor of Calais

Eddie Wade

Aurelio Eustachio's son

Helen Sherman

Eleonora Aurelio's wife

Paula Sides

Giovanni d'Aire a Burgher

Stuart Haycock

Giacomo de Wisants a Burgher

Niel Joubert

Pietro de Wisants a Burgher

Brendan Collins

Armando a Burgher

Matthew Sprange

Incognito the Stranger, an English spy

Piotr Lempa

Edoardo III Edward III, King of England

Cozmin Sime

Edmondo an English General

Adam Tunnicliffe

Performance DatesAssedio di Calais 2013

Map List

Perth Theatre | Perth

16 May, 19.30

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