Magazine article The Spectator

Top of the Class

Magazine article The Spectator

Top of the Class

Article excerpt

L'assedio di Calais Guildhall School of Music and Drama

This is the time of year, before the long hibernation of opera companies sets in, when there is sometimes a choice of several operas per night, many of them performed by the schools of music, which often seem to adopt the unintelligent course of having their performances on in the same week. This year, however, it is possible to go to the Guildhall School this week, the Royal qAcademy next week, with Semele conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and the Royal College the week after that to see The Magic Flute.

The Guildhall School's choice of Donizetti's L'assedio di Calais was a brave one: many opera-goers, myself intermittently included, tend to think of Donizetti's historical operas as virtually interchangeable, and only to be borne if there is a star soprano in an important role. One of the many interesting things about L'assedio (The Siege) is that there is no important soprano part. Still better, so far as I am concerned, is that there is no place for vocal fireworks from anyone. In fact, one could list any of the salient characteristics of the typical Donizetti opera and look for them in vain in L'assedio. While that makes it, to me, an attractive proposition, it may well have been what prevented the opera from having much success in 1836, when it was first performed, and from being revived much since. Julian Budden, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, claims that it is 'a patriotic opera on the French model, with which Donizetti hoped to "introduce a new genre to Italy".' Unfortunately, he failed, the Italians showing their recurrent preference for trivial showpieces, which the composer was prepared and able to supply them with by the dozen.

As Budden also says, 'the fact that the juvenile lead is a mezzo-soprano allows a play of 6ths and 3rds in his duet comparable to Bellini's "Mira o Norma" ', and this was indeed the first time that Donizetti has ever reminded me of his greater contemporary for a sustained stretch of the music.

Equally Bellinian is the fact that, in this relatively short work, there are no passages in which music takes precedence over drama.

The action is tight, the music almost consistently intense, much of it choral or in ensemble.

All that means that it is highly suitable for production by an opera school, and the GSMD's account of it was the best thing I have seen there, and by such a big margin that I wonder whether the conductor, David Angus, should take much of the credit, for the orchestra played with exceptional discipline and refinement, and the first night manifested a rare all-round confidence. …

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