American Premiere Review: A Musically Appealing, Theatrically Arresting “Siege of Calais” Links Donizetti and Zambello – July 16, 2017

The 2017 Glimmerglass Festival has taken on a challenging project, breathing life into a 181-year old Donizetti opera that had virtually disappeared from performance in Europe and had never been performed in the United States.

A young cast proves their skills in singing Donizetti’s well-crafted score. Francesca Zambello, the Festival’s artistic and general director, demonstrates how one can time-shift a mid-14th century story-line into the 21st century without the change seeming contrived or inappropriately anachronistic. Zambello’s staging proved to be persuasively dramatic, well-paced and absorbing.

The subject matter is an English military siege designed to starve the French city of Calais into surrender. The historical subject appealed to composer Donizetti, whose boyhood was spent during  vicious Napoleonic and Hapsburg wars. It has resonance with Zambello, who has empathy with the numerous siege victims and war refugees of our present day.

[Below: James Noone’s opening sets for Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais”; edited image, based on a Carrington Spires photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Aleks Romano’s Aurelio and Leah Crocetto’s Eleonora

The lead role, Aurelio, Calais’ mayor’s son, is performed by Connecticut mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano. Tasked with the responsibility to project a vigorous young man (who at the opera’s beginning rappels down a wall to steal food from enemy troops to feed his family), Romano proved to be a convincing actor and a stylish vocal performer.

[Below: Aleks Romano as Aurelio; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Although Donizetti by the 1830s had turned away from writing musico roles – in which heroic male roles are assigned to female voices – “Siege of Calais”was commissioned by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples which had no tenor acceptable to Donizetti, but did have a brilliant mezzo-soprano – thus Aurelio was written for the mezzo. (An analogous situation had earlier caused Donizetti’s contemporary Bellini to cast the role of Romeo in his “Capulets and the Montagues” for the mezzo voice.)

On the basis of her Aurelio, Romano appears ready to stake out the great musico roles, such as those of Rossini – a genre in which mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne built much of her illustrious career. Romano has already performed Arsace in Rossini’s “Semiramide” at Opera Delaware. (She has also performed Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” with the Washington National Opera and will perform the Composer in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Austin Opera.)

Michigan soprano Leah Crocetto assumed the role of Aurelio’s wife Eleonora. Crocetto’s role was augmented in this production with a rondo-finale added by Donizetti after the opera’s premiere. The aria, Questio pianto che sul ciglio, E l’eccesso del contento with its dazzling cabaletta beautifully fit Crocetto’s large, expressive soprano voice and mastery of the coloratura embellishments expected of a bel canto artist.

[Below: Eleonora (Leah Crocetto, second from left) is restrained by a guard as her son Filippo (Rock Lasky), father-in-law Eustachio (Adrian Timpau, seated, center) and King Edward III (Michael Hewitt, right) look on; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Among the opera’s highlights is a scene in which Aurelio reveals to his wife Eleonora the content of a dream in which the English destroy Calais (Io l’udia chiarmarmi a nome).

When an annoucement is made of what seems to be a conciliatory gesture by the English, the ecstatic Aurelio and Eleonora engage in the close harmony duet La speme a dolci palpito, mi ridestò nel seno –  an exciting cabaletta that will remind aficionados of Bellini’s “Norma” of the famous high-speed coloratura duet for Norma and Adalgisa.

[Below: Aurelio (Aleks Romano, left) and Eleonora (Leah Crocetto, right) embrace each other and their child Filippo (Rock Lasky); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Adrian Timpau’s Eustachio

Baritone Adrian Timpau, a Glimmerglass Young Artist hailing from the Republic of Moldova, provided gravitas as Eustachio, Calais’ mayor and moral leader.

Possessing a fine lyric baritone and with Donizetti’s luxurious music to display it, Timpau’s performance suggests an important future career.

[Below: Adrian Timpau as Eustachio; edited image, based on a Carrington Spires photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Michael Hewitt’s King Edward III and Helena Brown’s Queen Isabella

Colorado baritone Michael Hewitt gave an authoritative performance as the 14th century monarch Edoardo III (bedecked in costume designer Jessica Jahn’s contemporary business suit).

As Edward, Hewitt has replaced another artist for the entire season, while also performing the role of Jud Fry in this Glimmerglass season’s production of “Oklahoma!” [Review: Glimmerglass Festival’s Rip-Roaring “Oklahoma” – July 14, 2017 .]

A graduate of Rice University’s vocal arts program and a Houston Grand Opera Studio Alumnus, Hewitt’s focused baritone has the weight to convey the darker emotions of an unsympathetic character.

[Below: Michael Hewitt as King Edward III; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph; courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

New York soprano Helena Brown sang the role of Queen Isabella (Donizetti changing the name of Edward III’s historical wife to honor the reigning queen of Naples, site of the opera’s premiere).

Brown sang impressively with a regal demeanor, whose sympathetic response to the Calais hostages’ appeal for mercy proved to be dramatically persuasive. Brown’s performance made a strong case for the character and suggested that performances that eliminate the Queen are in error.

[Below: Helena Brown as Queen Isabella; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Maestro Joseph Colaneri and the Musical Performance

The Glimmerglass Festival music director, Maestro Joseph Colaneri led the Festival’s orchestra and Young Artists’ Chorus in a brilliant performance of the work.

Maestro Colaneri was a leading advocate for the revival of the Festival’s 2016 production of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie [La Gazza Ladra]”, as he is for this season’s “Siege of Calais”, operas unknown to most American audiences.

The opera abounds in dramatic music for Aurelio, Eleonora and Eustachio and a concertato for Calais’ burghers closing the second act that is among Donizetti’s finest creations.

Although there are alternate versions of the opera (and there are musicologists that argue that the opera’s entire third act should be jettisoned), the version that Colaneri conducted is vocally powerful and dramatically cohesive.

Impressively sung and effectively acted as it is by this cast, the third act pleas of the six hostages to Queen Isabella and Eleonora’s joyous rondo-finale and cabaletta are clearly integral parts of a complete opera.

[Below: Six citizens of Calais who have volunteered to become hostages are, from left to right, Pietro de Wisants (Makoto Winkler) Giacomo de Wisents (Joseph Leppek) Armando (Carl DuPont), Eustachio, Mayor of Calais (Adrian Timpau), Aurelio, Eustachio’s son (Alek Romano) and Giovanni d’Arie (Chaz’men Williams-Ali); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Calais’ burghers are sung by California tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali is Giovanni d’Aire, New York’s Makoto Winkler is Pietro de Wisants , Michigan’s Joseph Leppek is Giacomo de Wisants and Florida’s Carl Dupont is Armando. Illinois’ Zachary Owens is an English Spy. Mexico’s Andres Moreno Garcia is the English General, Edmondo.

Francesca Zambello’s Production, James Noone’s sets, Jessica Jahn’s Costumes and Mark McCullough’s Lighting Design

Francesca Zambello’s instinct that its story (based on tragic historical events) has relevance for today’s audiences is sound. People can differ on whether specific military interventions are justified or not, but few would defend any military power systematically starving a civilian population. Innocent casualties of military sieges continue to be a reality.

The Glimmerglass production of “Siege of Calais” is a landmark contribution to the rediscovery of an important Donizetti opera. It chooses a unified musical and dramatic form from among several existing alternatives with complementary staging and scenery. Other opera companies can use the pathbreaking work done at Glimmerglass to introduce this opera to wider audiences.

Zambello has the theatrical savvy to unlock the dramatic elements of Donizetti’s own approaches to the Italian opera conventions of his day. She, for example, stages the strettas and cabaletta verse repeats – that many directors routinely cut – in impressive ways that move the action forward.

It’s noteworthy that one of the Donizetti’s innovations in this opera is the promotion of a device that is often used in other Zambello productions – a scene where the orchestra is playing while action is mimed. Aurelio rappelling down the wall during the overture was staged by Zambello, but Donizetti’s original stage directions intended that Aurelio’s foray would take place in view of the audience during the overture.

James Noone’s sets, which suggest the shambles that would result from a modern day siege, effectively represent Zambello’s intentions. Jessica Jahn’s costumes and Mark McCullough’s lighting nicely complemented the staging and the scenic design.


I enthusiastically recommend this cast and production of “The Siege of Calais” both for the opera veteran and the person new to opera.