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Sunday, August 06, 2017

Bel Canto, Bella Cantori

WHEN YOUR CAREER PASSION points you towards opera, it must be the arias of Donizetti that inspired you. He perfected bel canto, and, over the course of some 75 operas, offered plenty of compelling material. Works like “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “The Daughter of the Regiment” cemented his reputation, yet, amazingly, “The Siege of Calais,” his 49th opera, had to wait until now to get its American premiere.

Leah Crocetto and Aleks Romano
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
This is happening at The Glimmerglass Festival, where an astonishingly talented ensemble brings to life a torn-from-the-pages-of-history story of a beleaguered city driven to the brink of starvation at the start of the Hundred Years War – and the terrible bargain that could bring salvation.

Unhappy with the version that premiered in Naples in 1836, Donizetti tinkered with the piece, eliminating its ballet and shrinking it from three acts to two, but he never seems to have made peace with it and it dropped out of sight for decades. Glimmerglass Festival music director Joseph Colaneri restored it to its three-act glory (though sans ballet) and conducted the virtuoso orchestra.

We’re placed in a modern setting (with corrugated tin a dominant scenic element) which, given recent events in Calais, is uncomfortably appropriate. Soldiers stand guard, but a young rebel steals some of their food and is chased into the sea. It’s Aurelio (mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano), uncertain whose fate kicks off the tension of the next scene, as Aurelio’s father, mayor Eustachio (baritone Adrian Timpau) laments the terrible conditions, a grief exacerbated when Aurelio’s wife, Eleonora (soprano Leah Crocetto) reveals that her husband may have run afoul of the occupying forces.

Crocetto’s voice is so rich, so elastic, so powerful in every corner of her impressive range that it was she whom I first imagined as one who grew up with an unshakable ambition to sing opera – yet it turns out that she’s mastered other genres as well, as this clip of her singing a Cole Porter song easily demonstrates. But to hear her in Donizetti is to glory in what a fabulous voice can do bringing out the power of music well suited to the emotional demands of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto, while also showing us what a great voice can do.

When Eustachio discovers that Aurelio remains alive, he sings  the joyous “Le fibre, oh Dio! m'investe orrida man di gelo!” (“For a moment I can forget the troubles of this horrific war!”), which leads to a duet with Eleonora. Timpau and Crocetto are terrific together, but when she soars to the high notes at the end, she owns the moment with her sense of complete control.

A modest-sized ensemble convincingly represents the starving villagers, and director Francesca Zambello allows each a full range of personality, complementing James Noone’s three-story set with stage pictures that continually reinforce the peoples’ plight.

Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival
Aurelio is a father, and has a touching reunion with his young son; he’s also a fighter, so effective in his exhortations to fight that you forget this is a pants role for Romano. And you have to: Women don’t have much of a history of starting wars and besieging cities, and it’s the power of women that brings the plot to a satisfying conclusion. Although baritone Michael Hewitt’s third-act appearance as Edoardo III is chillingly businesslike in his insistence on exacting a cruel victory (it’s quite a contrast to his role as Jud in the Glimmerglass “Oklahoma!,” running in repertory), when wife Isabella enters, soprano Helena Brown exerts a power both in song and in silence as she comes to terms with her husband’s inhuman demands.

Once the scene shifts to the British camp, we miss Eleonora – bu she and a detachment of wives and children show up to plead for the lives of their husbands and fathers. Although it’s Aurelio’s moment as Romano begins the plaintive “Raddopia I baci tuoi, parte di me piu cara,” insisting on a kiss from his son, it soon spreads throughout the ensemble, eventually including the queen. Thus, both Crocetto and Brown have more moments in which to sparkle.

Amidst so much vocal glory there’s one unfortunate distraction: the British soldiers, threatening the French by waving their Kalashnikovs every which way while lunging and sneering. Holding an automatic rifle gives you authority enough.

Of course, you don’t have to be a singer to be passionate about opera, and this is the kind of piece that makes opera lovers out of the rest of us, too. And this is the kind of production that confirms the power and beauty of well-crafted song sung by extraordinarily talented people. And, given the current political situation in Europe, it reminds us that some opera-worthy conflict unfortunately refuses to fade into history.

The Siege of Calais
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Salvatore Cammarano
The Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Through August 19, 2017

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