Gaetano Donizetti (born Bergamo 29 November 1797; died Bergamo 8 April 1848).
Salvatore Cammarano (1801-1852).
Drama Eustache de Saint-Pierre (1822) by Philippe-Jacques Laroche, adapted by Luigi Marichionni.
First Performance: Naples (Teatro San Carlo), 19 November 1836.
First Performance in UK: London (Guildhall School of Music & Drama), 3 March 1993.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (New Athenaeum Theatre, RSAMD), 27 June 1998.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.
Since the disastrous censorship problems that had stymied the 1834 opening of Maria Stuarda, the San Carlo in Naples had become a happier hunting ground for Donizetti. Lucia di Lammermoor had quickly become an intenational success. L assedio di Calais did less well, perhaps due to the absence of a leading tenor - Aurelio, the part he would have taken, being assigned, in old-fashioned style, to a mezzo. The following year there was once more a tenor available, and the result was another success with a British subject, Roberto Devereux, based on the Elizabeth and Essex romance.
Performances in modern times have been rare. An excellent recording by Opera Rara dragged the work into the light in 1988, led by Della Jones (Aurelio), Christian du Plessis (Eustachio) and Nuccia Focile (Eleonora), causing widespread astonishment. It was quickly mounted at Wexford (1991) and in London by students at the Guildhall (1993). The Academy's Glasgow staging showed bel canto to be a slightly foreign style, in a production concept that did the piece few favours. It was far better served by ETO in Perth (2013), even if a controversial decision was taken to jettison most of the final act, and therefore emphasise the essentially tragic nature of the piece.
Eustachio, Mayor of Calais (baritone)
Aurelio, his son (mezzo-soprano)
Eleonora, Aurelio's wife (soprano)
The unknown one, an English spy (bass)
Giacomo, a burgher (tenor)
Edmondo, an English general (tenor)
Edward III, King of England (baritone)
Isabella, Queen of England (soprano)
In the year 1347, Calais is besieged by an English army led by Edward III, who lays claim to the throne of France. The people of Calais are close to starvation, and Aurelio, raiding the English camp to get supplies, only just escapes home. A movement arises to depose Eustachio, but it collapses when he offers himself up to the rebels. The ringleader is revealed to be an English spy.
Eleonora prays for the city's safety. Aurelio wakes and tells her of a nightmare he had in which he died of wounds as their son was also being killed. Word comes of a proposal from Edward, and the leaders assemble to discuss it. The offer is that in exchange for an (otherwise) universal pardon, six leading citizens should offer themselves up for execution. Initial reaction is of horror and that the citizens would prefer death in battle. However Eustachio, in volunteering to be a victim, persuades them that the proposal is the only way to save the women and children. The five additional volunteers are quickly found, though Eustachio's reaction to his son's inclusion is mixed. They prepare for departure.
In the English camp, Edward greets his envoy's return with enthusiasm, in the belief that he will now be King of England, Scotland and France. His Queen arrives, having won a battle against the Scots. The sacrificial victims enter, and a brief altercation ensues between Edward and Eustachio, who hands over the keys of the city. Townsfolk now come to beg for a pardon for the six, but Edward refuses. When the hostages ask to be taken to their execution immediately, the Queen is moved by their courage, and begs for a general pardon. Edward at last accedes, and there is universal celebration at the King's clemency and the forthcoming peace.
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