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Safe Haven

The U.S. premiere of Donizetti’s Assedio di Calais at Glimmerglass fits the festival’s “home and homeland” theme.
By Matthew Sigman | Illustration by Nigel Buchanan 

Safe Haven Illustration hdl 617
Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

ON A CLEAR DAY, YOU CAN SEE THE WHITE CLIFFS OF Dover across the English Channel from the shores of Calais, the French port city that has been a flashpoint of conflict since the middle ages. In 1346, not long into the Hundred Years’ War, England’s King Edward III and his army launched a brutal assault on Calais. To punish the town for its resistance, he ordered its entire populace slaughtered. Six elders volunteered to die in place of their fellow citizens. Their lives would ultimately be spared by England’s Queen Phillippa, but their offer of martyrdom became an emblem of French pride, inspiring all manner of art and literature, including Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and Gaetano Donizetti’s opera L’Assedio di Calais, which will have its U.S. premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival on July 16.

Salvatore Cammarano, Donizetti’s frequent collaborator, drew from several French and Italian literary sources for the libretto. Against the tableau of history he placed Aurelio, son of the leader of Calais, and his devoted wife, Eleonora, who prays for the life of her husband and the safety of her city. The tropes of eighteenth-century melodrama resonate throughout—emboldened soldiers, embattled townspeople, heroes, rogues, intimacies and intrigues all scored in Donizetti’s inimitable bel canto style. (Spoiler alert: exercising a bit of dramatic license, Donizetti and Cammarano omitted the Queen’s clemency to allow for a glorious hymn as the elders march to their death.)

By 1836, when Naples gave the premiere of L’Assedio, Donizetti had firmly established his reputation in Europe with Anna Bolena, L’Elisir d’Amore, Lucrezia Borgia and Lucia di Lammermoor, but he felt constrained by the resources and politics of the Italian opera houses that had produced his works. Glimmerglass Festival music director Joseph Colaneri says Donizetti longed to write for the Paris Opera and hoped L’Assedio would be his chance. “Paris was very attractive to him for many reasons,” says Colaneri. “The opera house was the most famous and most well-equipped opera in the world, and they had a long, luxurious rehearsal period.” 

Donizetti sought to advance his Parisian ambitions by choosing a French historical subject, says Colaneri. He also followed certain conventions of the Paris Opera—the insertion of a ballet divertissement and the inclusion of a coup de théâtre. However, true to Italian casting traditions (and disdainful of available tenors), Donizetti wrote Aurelio, the hero, as a “pants role” for contralto. At Glimmerglass, Aurelio will be sung by mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano, formerly a Glimmerglass Young Artist and member of Washington National Opera’s Domingo–Cafritz Young Artists program. Eleanora will be sung by soprano Leah Crocetto, who made her Met debut as Liù in Turandot in 2015.

L’Assedio was received enthusiastically at its premiere in Naples in 1836, but Donizetti was not pleased with the work, and it never made its way to Paris—or, for the next 150 years, anywhere else. “Revivals were composer-driven, and Donizetti had every intention of revising the work, but the revision never came about,” says Colaneri. “We really don’t know why it fell off the boards, but he himself was not pushing it. It was his forty-ninth opera, and he was well along in the canon.” The opera lay dormant until 1990, when it was revived for the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, the composer’s birthplace. A subsequent production at Ireland’s Wexford Festival in 1991 was directed by Francesca Zambello, general and artistic director of Glimmerglass and general director of Washington National Opera. For Glimmerglass, the opera, which will be performed in Italian, has been edited from its original three-act structure to two, with the dance sequences omitted.

PROGRAMMING  L’ASSEDIO advanced several objectives for Zambello. In an interview at her apartment in Greenwich Village, she outlined the work’s value to the festival, to its community and to herself. First, she says, there is the “simple beauty” of the work: “If you like bel canto, you’re going to like this opera. Even if you don’t like bel canto, you’re going to like this opera. It’s one of those rare pieces that have a good story and incredibly beautiful music. It’s in the period after Lucia where you get very sophisticated ensemble writing. It’s not A-B-A. The vocal lines are powerful, and the characters are interesting.” 

Then there is the opportunity to showcase talent. “We’ve had several bel canto resurgences,” she says. “We had Sutherland, we had Sills. And now I think we’re coming back again. A lot of it is because we have great singers—many great American singers—who do this repertory. They embody beautiful singing, but they also bring meaning to the pieces.”

L’Assedio also fits the larger mission of Glimmerglass, which for several seasons has dedicated its thematic programming to variations on a theme of social justice. One season explored “unjust accusation” by pairing Robert Ward’s Crucible with Sweeney Todd; another highlighted powerful women by matching Cherubini’s Medea with Annie Get Your Gun. Surrounding the performances are ancillary activities—lectures, cabaret, art exhibits, a film series—that examine additional facets of the season’s theme. 

The result is an immersive experience that advances the festival’s attractiveness as a destination for affluent operaphiles from across the country, while simultaneously serving as a cultural hub for local audiences, which the festival cultivates assiduously. Glimmerglass education programs engage grammar schools, music students and adult-learning centers, encouraging opera literacy and group attendance at performances. Similar initiatives build relationships with local churches, synagogues and mosques, helping to foster dialogue when contemporary repertoire comes up against traditional values. In addition to the artistic and educational impact of the festival, there is a significant economic impact on the region. Once a thriving home to farming and manufacturing, Otsego County has faced an economic decline in recent decades. The festival’s $8-million budget provides twenty-nine full-time positions and 350 seasonal jobs, unleashing $21 million in value to the region. It easily stands beside Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame as a pillar of its community.

Safe Haven hdl 617 
Rodin’s Burghers of Calais
imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

FOR THE 2017 SEASON, Zambello chose “home and homeland” as the festival’s theme, linking L’Assedio with Porgy and Bess (one man’s struggle to make a home with a woman), Oklahoma! (the story of men and women making homeland on the prairie), Handel’s Xerxes (a romantic intrigue set against a ruler’s quest to expand his empire) and a newly commissioned work, Stomping Grounds, by Victor Simonson and Paige Hernandez, which blends hip-hop, spoken word and opera to tell the stories of refugees, immigrants and natives (who make their home at a local coffee shop).

But it is L’Assedio that resonates most deeply with the Glimmerglass zeitgeist. Present-day Calais remains a key French port for cargo and passengers, all the more so since the opening of the “Chunnel” in 1994. But along with paying customers came a tide of U.K.-bound stowaways fleeing conflicts in Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. The nonstop flow through Calais quickly backed up, leading to the formation of squalid encampments that came to be known as the “Calais Jungle.” Diplomatic and humanitarian solutions failed, as did the construction of high-security fencing on the French side. In October 2016, despite protests from nationalists and humanitarians alike, the French government razed the camps, dispersing their residents to yet more uncertain destinies.

“The Calais Jungle has been disbanded, but there are plenty of other Calais Jungles everywhere in the world right now,” says Zambello, who will direct L’Assedio and has set it in a modern-day refugee camp. But she also notes that not all displaced persons are in encampments in distant lands: less than an hour from Glimmerglass is the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, which over the past three decades plus has resettled more than 15,000 individuals, including Vietnamese, Bosnians and Somalis. “There’s this incredible international oasis there,” she says. “These are real refugees, people who came from places of persecution.” 

Zambello is eager to draw these new citizens into the festival experience, especially with this year’s homeland theme, but she has also made refugee awareness a personal mission. “We’re in a time where you have to focus on one issue. Otherwise you are going to get overwhelmed,” she says. “Each of us has to pick one or maybe two issues that will help other people—voter registration, the environment, refugee assistance, education. I think my work is best focused on refugees and helping people get to this country, settle in this country, through working with the refugee center, through UNICEF, through other organizations.”

This passion is not political. “I’m not ‘anti’ any administration. I’m just ‘pro’ fixing the problem,” she says. Nor, she adds, was this season’s Glimmerglass Festival theme a specific response to the immigration policies of the current administration: “I programed these two years ago, not on November 9.” 

This is not to say that Zambello is not adept at navigating the shoals of politics. Since taking the artistic reigns of Washington National Opera in 2012, she has challenged audiences with an array of contemporary works that touch third-rail issues without sparking cultural wars: among other examples, the company’s American Opera Initiative gave the premiere of The Dictator’s Wife, by Mohammed Fairouz and Mohammed Hanif, in which the glamorous wife of a once-powerful dictator must answer for his atrocities as he cowers in the bathroom.

WNO performs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and, like the center’s other constituents—symphony, ballet, theater, film—the company operates with artistic independence but is mindful of the fact that it resides inside a federally funded national memorial. Diplomats, congressmen, senators, justices, lobbyists, Democrats, Republicans, Verdians and Wagnerians gather at the Kennedy Center in nonpartisan détente. “As producers, we cannot be political,” says Zambello, “but of course if an artist presents a political viewpoint, you can’t sanitize things.” 

With a devout sense of patriotism, absent nationalistic arrogance, WNO has made American music, American narratives and American singers central to its mission. “It’s the Kennedy Center,” says Zambello. “We’re supposed to show the best of our country!” Even the company’s Ring cycle, which she directed, moved Wagner’s paean to gold from the Rhine to California. Coproduced with San Francisco Opera, which gave the premiere, the production was originally conceived for Washington. “The notion of power drove it,” Zambello told The Washington Post. “It’s not like Valhalla was the White House or that Götterdämmerung was 9/11, but you want to suggest those things. You want the audience to think about it.”

Branding Washington National Opera as a showcase for Americana while branding Glimmerglass Festival as a global forum for social change may seem an unwieldy challenge for one artistic director. But Zambello, more pragmatist than provocateur, does not see the objectives as mutually exclusive: “Every artist says that art can be the bridge, that it can be the connection,” she says, “and I do believe that. I’m just trying to find practical ways to see that manifested.” spacer 

Matthew Sigman has written for Opera America, Chorus America, American Theater and Symphony magazines. He is a three-time recipient of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 

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