nn The six men sang their hearts to the edge of fear. They were the six burghers of Calais, offering their lives to a King so that the other citizens of their city could be spared. The heroism of the burghers turns the dramatic wheel in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera, “The Siege of Calais,” given its glorious, provocative and mesmerizing American premiere at this year’s Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.
The production blisters the heart with the hot pain of war, then repairs with the force of love and justice in a cycle perhaps perceptible only in music.
The Glimmerglass “Calais” works this magic, and yet its imposing and intricate set by James Noone is grounded in today’s reality of drumbeat news from present day Calais in France where thousands of refugees and illegal migrants from primarily Africa and the Middle East congregate and camp in deleterious conditions in the hope, often vain, of sneaking across the English Channel through the channel tunnel. They hide on the back of cargo trucks, conjuring work and safety in England, ignoring the anti-immigrant fervor that triggered Brexit just as they ignored the perils of getting as far as Calais. It is as if Calais, located at the narrowest point on the Channel, has become a tiny keyhole to the future, and the migrants try to squeeze themselves through it.
Calais has always played a role in the relationship between France and England, especially in war. The Donizetti opera, written in 1836, tells the story of how in 1347, Edward II, King of England, cut off all food, water and supplies to the city, trying to starve it into submission, so that he could take the city for his use as a port in his war for the throne of France, then in its 10th horrific year.
The citizens of Calais refused to give in but, as the horrors multiplied, the leaders of Calais sent word to the King that they were ready to discuss terms. The King agreed to lift the siege if the six burghers offered themselves for execution. The burghers agreed, but at the last moment, Edward’s Queen, Isabella, steps in and urges the King to spare the burghers as a recognition of their courage and because even Kings are not empowered to decide who shall live or die. Disgusted by her husband’s lack of mercy after causing so much suffering, Isabella, played strikingly by Helena Brown, pulls rank and sings: “Do you set yourself above God?...I am the daughter of a great King. I implore you. Listen to what I ask of you. Do not let their noble blood cast a pall over our triumph. I ask you to relent.” The King, sung with dignity by Michael Hewitt, gives in.
These facts are far in the past, but Calais could as easily be Syria, Yemen, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip, anywhere wheer arrogant blind power takes human life for granted, including most recently in Charlottesvile in the United States where a neo-Nazi thug plowered his car into a group of protestors, causing death and serious injury. Headlines trap our thoughts; music liberates them. And so we may pause to consider as the art takes us along.
The burghers, a magnificent ensemble of Chaz’men Williams Ali, Adrian Timpau, Aleks Romano, Carl DuPont, Makoto Winkler and Joseph Leppek, pour forth every shade of emotion, thanks to the astute and knowing direction of Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of Glimmerglass, who also keeps them moving fluidly around and among each other even on a somewhat crowded stage.
And conductor Joseph Colaneri masterfully weaves the strength of Donizetti’s music with its heartbreaking poignancy. Colaneri has said, “we all are discovering this music together...here in the US, it has not been performed before,” and he does seem to be drawing with the finest of pencils as his baton leads the orchestra, chorus and individual singers through the momentous moods of the piece.
Here, politic and music are one, at times, as Colaneri describes it, from a “beautiful dreamscape” as one of the exhausted heroes, Aurelio, at last finds serenity in a few hours of sleep, to the military tones of autocratic madness that turn the desperate act of a starving man stealing bread into a crime against the state.
Glimmerglass has become globally known for its vanguard approach to blending today’s economic and social themes into classic works, such as “Calais,” as well as a solid commitment to diversity in casting and all other components of artistic production.
This year’s theme at Glimmerglass has been home and homeland, including productions of “Porgy and Bess,” “Xerxes,” and “Oklahoma.” And Zambello’s vision has expressed itself eloquently in all four productions, though each is so distinct.
But it is Calais, perhaps, that most transcends the limits of time and offers the haunting yet inspiring truth that authority and mercy are the dual pillars of lasting peace. As Colaneri says, “This is the importance of the arts—that through music and the opera, people can be moved by a 400 year old story to reflect on all the dimensions of our lives and what it is to be a human being today.”