Donizetti’s little known opera comes to life at the Hackney Empire

An opera written almost 175 years ago about a key battle between the British and French in the 100 Years War might not seem the most riveting material, but ‘The Siege of Calais’, Donizetti’s little-known opera that premiered in 1836, most certainly came alive at the Hackney Empire in London last week. Though reviews are somewhat mixed, praise for the vocalists is a constant factor in them all.

Presented by the English Touring Opera for the first time, under direction by James Conway, the opera was cut from three acts to two in this version. ‘The Siege of Calais’ is about honour and sacrifice and the horrors of wartime in a besieged city, so it’s no light hearted romp. The sets are stark and grim, the characters generally in distress – but the music soars far beyond and above the war torn streets.

Updated from its 14th century setting to the 1940’s siege of Stalingrad, Samal Blak’s designs are 20th century gloomy, with props like a huge metal pipe looming over the stage and unformed bundles hanging from ‘trees’. The main characters are burghers preparing to sacrifice themselves to save their city; in the original they are given a reprieve, but in Conway’s condensed production the audience knows they’re doomed.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman is thrilling in her trousers role as Aurelio; Eddie Wade as Eustachio, the mayor, and Paula Sides as his daughter-in-law (Aurelio’s wife) also give magnificent performances. Altogether ETO has provided an excellent dramatic entertainment that’s well worth the ticket.