Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Patriotic Donizetti and the Siege of Aleppo

Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais (American Primiere)
Glimmerglass Opera Festival
Cooperstown, NY
July 22, 2017

A Neo-Realist take for our time on a bel canto classic
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: Director Francesca Zambello’s production of Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais should be a case study on how to modernize an opera, respect the original, and make it relevant to contemporary audiences. The very simple decision of moving the action from the siege of Calais in 1346-1347 to the 2017 siege of Aleppo brought the point home of just how universal a story this is.

The sets reminiscent of the contemporary horrors of all-too-familiar refugee crises
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: The rotating sets designed by James Noone were mostly comprised of bombed out concrete buildings with bent rebar poking out all over, an image that is (sadly) immediately recognizable from headline news in Syria (though they could easily represent any other war zone in recent memory, from Gaza to Baghdad). Along with Jessica John’s attention to detail in the tatters and rags that adorned one side of the fight and modern military garb on the other was sufficient for instantly increasing the emotional charge and relevance of the piece.

Lei: There was no need to translate the libretto into English, change the plot, or take any other Regie poetic license. The directorial choice to modernize the sets and costumes gave this nineteenth-century work a contemporary and universal depth that packed a more immediate punch than if its characters donned medieval armor and carried swords. War is war and the tragedy of defending’s ones home under siege by a despotic force remains the same fact of life whether in 1340s France or in 2017 Syria.

Confronting great adversity is a story for all times
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: L’assedio di Calais is one of those underappreciated gems that fell into oblivion for a number of at times inexplicable reasons but deserves to be brought back to life. Not only is the score bursting with wonderful musical moments, but more importantly the plot and the exploration of its various dramatic tensions are uniquely compelling.

The town of Calais in the north of France is under siege by an invading English army. The young French hero, Aurelio, is first glimpsed furtively pilfering supplies from across enemy lines to feed his starved people. His father Eustachio, the mayor of the besieged city, and his wife Eleonora open the opera on pins and needles, eagerly awaiting news of their son and husband, who has skipped town, temporarily.

Aurelio reunites with his father after a scout mission
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Structurally, the action of the plot revolves around a series of foreboding situations in which danger and devastation for the folks under siege is somehow closely averted. These dramatic catalysts are accompanied by corresponding waves of emotions that run the gamut from despair and sorrow to the sudden return of hope and joy, only to repeat the cycle again.

The initial preoccupations of father and wife over the fate of our young hero which resolves in his sudden soothing return is the first event in the series. The cycle repeats itself with Aurelio’s dream of his son’s abduction and again with the infiltration of a mole sent by the invading army into the besieged town.

All rejoice for the safety of the young
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The drama then heightens with the arrival of a message from the English King Edoardo. The city will be freed on the condition that six of its finest citizens consent to sacrificing and publicly humiliating themselves. The young hero, his illustrious father and four other brave men all enlist to die to save their city and loved ones. After many tribulations, and a regina ex machina who intervenes to save the day, a lesson in compassion is taught to one and all. The siege is lifted and everyone rejoices together (except maybe King Edoardo who is forced by his wife to play the enlightened monarch).

Lei: Assedio feels like a very unusual departure for Donizetti. It is rife with patriotic themes in ways that his other operas are not. The plot revolves around the tribulations of a family broken by war and of the larger tragedy of a population fighting for survival against an invading power. In a way, this opera feels like a bridge to Verdi, with its big choruses that advance the plot and its focus on patria oppressa patriotic themes.

Also, unlike most Donizetti dramatic operas, there is no prima donna per se to trigger the high drama. However, the absence of a more traditional tragedy of amorous triangles or unrequited love or doomed couples does not mean that the opera is less moving or emotionally compelling. Quite the contrary, Assedio evokes a range of emotions by means of its ensemble cast and in a way it felt truer than his other work (particularly considering Zambello’s provocative production).

Eustachio weighs his convictions at rock bottom
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: The emotions explored in this opera were incredibly complex and rich and the excellent Glimmerglass cast was up to the task. Baritone Adrian Timpau, as Eustachio, embodied both his public role as the leader of men responsible for the welfare the town’s citizens, but also the very private one as father worrying over the life of his heroic son and consoling his daughter-in-law and grandson. Timpau displayed excellent Italian and a well-rounded, agile instrument that managed, together with his effective acting, to poignantly express the ample spectrum of emotions of his character.

Timpau’s portrayal of Eustachio was veined by a tragic desperation that was utterly moving, in particular when he faces the moral dilemma of whether to sacrifice his life to save his people from suffering further. This terrific singer appeared as a member of the Glimmerglass Young Artist Program, but his skill and artistic maturity seemed those of a far more established artist and in fact, his young age notwithstanding, he was a very convincing town elder, father and leader figure. I suspect that we’ll be hearing from him again very soon.

Aurelio and his wife and son
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Mezzo Aleks Romano in the pants role of the young hero Aurelio, together with soprano Leah Crocetto as his wife, vividly represented the love of a couple whose burgeoning family is threatened by war in their many husband-wife duets, gripped by joy and by fear but united in their concern for the future of their son (here played by a heart-wrenching little boy who at one point is seen kicking his half deflated soccer ball amidst the ruins from the bombarding).

Publicly, the Aurelio character also embodies an impetuous brave young man who is driven by principle and eager to fight the oppressor. Vocally, this role has perhaps the most show-stopping flashy coloratura-filled arias to sing and Romano embodied them with a seemingly effortless conviction and passion. Crocetto was an equally impressive singer with a big, luscious voice and easy high notes that carried duets and ensembles alike.

Lei: But perhaps one of the most powerful recurring themes of the evening is that of the love of country and the fierce spirit of resistance required to fight against an unjust invading power. This was most vividly expressed by an impressive chorus, and perhaps most memorably in the fierce Act I finale Come tigri di strage anelanti that was delivered with an electrifying force reminiscent of the Guerra, guerra chorus in Norma.

Sarà di guerra unanime
grido: la patria, il re.
(con tutto l'impeto d’una estrema disperazione)
Come tigri di strage anelanti
piomberem sul nemico spietato,
negli sguardi, nel volto spiranti
ira estrema, furor disperato...
Scorreranno torrenti di sangue,
tutto il campo una tomba sarà.

Let it be a unanimous war cry:
Our homeland, our king.
(with all the impetus of an extreme desperation)
Like tigers hungry for slaughter
We will assail the merciless enemy
In our gait, in our dying faces
Extreme ire, desperate fury…
Streams of blood will flow
The whole battlefield will be a tomb.

The men gird themselves for the good of the community
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lui: Patriotic feelings were also in full display in the moving Act II finale, with a unique all male sextet of Calais patriots ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save their loved ones. This moment was particularly moving as all six singers were delivering the same lines in solemn prayer-like fashion, effectively conveying martyrdom.

Patria oppressa, hear my cry!
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: The emotional charge of this opera, surely enhanced by the modern day framing, was so powerful that I found myself on the verge of tears pretty much from the opening chorus, silently sobbing at many junctions throughout the opera, and really weeping inconsolably in the Act III finale. By curtain call, I was an emotional wreck, yes, but also exhilarated by such a cathartic and universal piece of art.

Lui: In our three years of Glimmerglass experience this was the most satisfying performance of all – an electrifying discovery with a top-notch cast, a thought-provoking production, all in all perfectly executed. This production made a very compelling case for bringing Assedio back into opera houses regular rotations, particularly with Zambello’s modern take through the Syrian conflict lenses.

The six self-chosen for sacrifice
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Lei: One can only wish that all modern productions were as successful as this one. The trick was to find the right analogue in which to set an otherwise universal story. The Syrian crisis fits the bill, not least of all because it so powerfully evokes a slew of emotions that struggle to find the proper cathartic release in the context of current political discourse as well as in the mainstream media.

Lui: This is what the arts are for. They provide a forum for exploring collective sentiments that have a hard time finding a venue in other areas of life but that we are desperate to confront together as a culture. Seated collectively in a dark theater, alone together with our thoughts and our solipsistic emotions, mulling over what it means to be human now and always in the company of each other – this is the perfect occasion for an intense and draining exercise in human empathy. It is a beautiful thing what Zambello achieved here in large part thanks to Donizetti and his librettist. A forgotten opera found its relevance again and for this we all can be grateful.

– Lei & Lui

Rodin's take on the burghers of selfsame crisis in Calais

The venue for our collective exercise in human empathy
Photo credit: Glimmerglass

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