'L'Assedio di Calais' / Odyssey Opera

by Ed Tapper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 28, 2017

A scene from Odyssey Opera's production of Donizetti's "L'Assedio di Calais."
A scene from Odyssey Opera's production of Donizetti's "L'Assedio di Calais."   

Bel Canto opera composer Gaetano Donizetti seldom fails to please, nor does Boston's Odyssey Opera. This week, the groundbreaking troupe is presenting the Boston premiere of the composer's 1836 "L'Assedio di Calais."

The work is highly atypical of Donizetti's usual, tuneful style. Set during the 100 Years War, "L'Assedio..." concerns itself with the futility of war and patriotic self-sacrifice. Appropriately, the music has a spare nobility and is unusually dark in atmosphere. Although there is no string of catchy arias, there are certainly some irresistible melodies that are pure Donizetti.

The opera is taut and well-constructed. The simple plot concerns English armed forces laying siege to the French city of Calais, and the horrific hardships suffered by its inhabitants, and, specifically, its ruling family. As the conflict is between two peoples, Donizetti uses the chorus to great effect; and the emphasis is, therefore, less on solo virtuosity. A sextet with chorus that closes Act 2 is one of the most sublime moments in all the composer's nearly 70 operas.

As is typical of Odyssey Opera, the production was faithful to the period in which the work was set, and highly respectful of the composer's intentions. A series of gray stone flats were moved about the stage to imaginatively suggested locales around the walls of the city. The proscenium arch was lined with curtains resembling animal skin, which suggested a medieval flavor. Likewise, the costumes were successful in evocating the period.

The confining dimensions of the Huntington Theater stage naturally posed some restrictions for an opera conceived on grand, French Romantic models. However, director Joshua Major did a commendable job moving the action forward, while optimizing the dramatic impact of this of the final act rarely heard, but moving masterwork. From the outset, it was apparent that the company had great faith in the work.

Gil Rose conducted with vigor and precision. Opting for a performing version that included the original 3-act version, but without the ballet sequences of the final act, Rose made a strong case for the work, driving forward a seamless reading of the score. Although there is no overture, the work has an extended third act prelude, which Rose conducted with true panache. And he engaged a talented cast of singers to work with him.

The role of Aurelio, the son of Calais's mayor, was written as a trouser role, and very well sung by the young mezzo-soprano, Magda Gartner. Her instrument descends easily into a deep, exciting chest voice, which she employed effectively at dramatic moments. Yet there was enough flexibility to negotiate the florid passagework in the duets. Also outstanding was baritone James Westman. His commanding voice and fine acting made him a truly sympathetic hero. The secondary roles were all proficiently handled by an enthusiastic cast which contributed greatly to the impact of this thematically unique item in the Donizetti canon.

"L'Assedio di Calais" was performed on October 26 and 28. For more details of upcoming productions by Odyssey Opera, visit the company's website.