218. L’assedio di Calais (Donizetti)

  • Melodramma lirico in 3 acts
  • Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
  • Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano
  • First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 18th November 1836

CHARACTERS

EUSTACHIO de Saint-Pierre, Mayor of CalaisBaritonePaul Barroilhet
AURELIO, his sonMezzo-sopranoAlmareinda Manzocchi
ELEONORA, Aurelio’s wifeSopranoCaterina Barilli-Patti
GIOVANNI d’Aire, burgherTenorFerdinando Cimino
GIACOMO de Wesants, burgherTenorFreni
PIETRO de Wisants, burgherBaritoneGiovanni Revalden
ARMANDO, burgherBassGiuseppe Benedetti
EDUARDO III, King of EnglandBaritoneLuigi Lablache
ISABELLA, Queen of EnglandSoprano 
EDMUNDO, English generalTenorNicola Tucci
An English spyBassPietro Ganni

SETTING: Calais, France, 1347


Rating: 3 out of 5.

The opera takes place during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France; the port of Calais is besieged by the English, and the townsfolk face starvation and death. The subject is grim: famine, war, popular unrest, desperation; L’Assedio di Calais is not an intimate opera, and the feelings are lofty: self-sacrifice, filial, spousal, and paternal love, and, above all, love of country. But for much of the work, Donizetti rises to the occasion; the score shows him at his most serious, dignified, and impressive. “It cost me not a little effort, but for me per Bacco it is effective!” [i]

L’Assedio di Calais was Donizetti’s response to French grand opéra (which he had encountered when Marino Faliero was performed in Paris the previous year), and was written with one eye on Paris. It was, he wrote, composed “in accordance with French taste”, and his “most exacting opera”[ii]. It is in some ways an ancestor of Verdi’s patriotic, nationalistic operas; here, the focus is not on the suffering of the prima donna (indeed, the soprano is a secondary role), but on the city and the people, of whom the Mayor, Eusatchio, and his son, Aurelio, are representatives. The Mayor is a baritone, while Aurelio is sung by a mezzo; while this might seem a throwback to Rossini’s armour-clad contraltos, Donizetti only gave the role to a woman because the tenors were inadequate; for an intended Paris production, he intended the tenor Duprez to sing the part.

Act I opens with a pantomime showing Aurelio creeping into the English camp to steal bread, and his escape from the soldiers. The whole scene is impressive, particularly the beautiful, broad theme that begins the opera, and the soldiers’ chorus, “Fuggi codardo, un’aura”. The scene changes to the Municipal Palace. After a duet for Eustachio and Aurelio’s wife Eleonora, expressing their concern for Aurelio, the returning young man has a serene cavatina “Al mio core” that leads into an excellent ensemble, “Giammai del forte”. A stranger (an English spy) agitates the people against the Mayor, spreading rumours that the town will run out food by the end of the day; Eustachio exposes the spy, then rallies the townspeople to face the English on the battlefield. The largo, “Che s’indugia”, is effective, and the stretta, “Come tigri”, is magnificent; it has, Ashbrook writes, “a Verdian level of raw energy”.

Act II begins in Aurelio’s quarters, where he takes leave of his wife and child. There is a pretty duet for mezzo and soprano, in which Aurelio recounts his nightmare of his son butchered by the English, and the couple express their joy that the English king, Edward III, has agreed to a parlay. The Finale is nearly 20 minutes long – “a sense of continuous musical theatre building from one episode to the next,” Ashbrook writes. A herald brings Edward’s demand: he will spare the city if six burghers are executed. The French are outraged, but, realizing it is the only way to save their women and children, agree. Among the Six of Calais are Eustachio and his son. The act ends with an impressive prayer sextet, “O sacra polve”.

Act III is generally considered an anticlimax; Donizetti himself considered it “the least successful” of the three acts. Later performances, as early as 1837, in fact, tended to omit the final act altogether. Easily the best piece in the act is the ensemble of Aurelio’s farewell, “Raddoppia i baci tuoi”, in the finale; otherwise the music is surprisingly uninspired. Edoardo’s aria (“Ogn’inciampo è alfin distrutto”) and cabaletta (“Il suon di tanto plauso”) are conventional (Ashbrook terms the piece “fatuous”); they are enlivened by the brilliant if showy chorus for the queen’s arrival, which separates them. There follow two dances to entertain the queen: a ballabile and danza militare, rather along French lines. “The third act …seems to me to produce less effect because the dances slow down the action, and perhaps I will cut them in order to make the opera still more effective.” At the last moment, the women – Eleonora and the queen – persuade Edoardo to be merciful; the opera ends with a chorus praising his magnanimity. For a later production, Donizetti gave the last word to the prima donna: Eleonora has an aria, “Questo pianto”, expressing her relief.

“The music is beautiful and erudite, what one would expect from the renowned maestro,” declared the Neapolitan Omnibus[iii]; “it evokes an aura of dignified melancholy, and possesses the merit of according perfectly with the grave, pathetic subject. Donizetti is a man who feels, and in addition to his own musical knowledge and his talent, he is keenly aware of the spirit of the times.”

L’Assedio di Calais was last performed in the 19th century in Naples in 1840, then resurrected by Opera Rara in 1988. The French production never eventuated; nevertheless, Ashbrook considers it “the first step in Donizetti’s conscious effort to internationalise his style”. Three years later, Donizetti had moved to Paris, where he achieved major successes in both grand opéra (Les martyrs and La favorite, both 1840) and opéra-comique (La fille du regiment, 1840), as well as Italian opera for Paris (Don Pasquale, 1843). He also had a triumph in Vienna with Linda di Chamounix (1842).


[i] Quoted in William Ashbrook, Opera Rara, p. 10.

[ii] Quoted in William Ashbrook, Opera Rara, p. 10.

[iii] Quoted in Ashbrook, Opera Rara, p. 16.

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