Gaetano Donizetti: L’assedio di Calais (1836)

Opera in tre atti. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes (with four minute appendix).


Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais. 

This is Donizetti’s anti-female opera, the apogee of the composer’s desire to distance himself completely from the then current convention of prima donna supremacy in Italian opera. The work does call for three female voices (including a mezzo in transvesti) but the two soprano parts are rather, well, tiny, and one only appears in the final act! This third act has created issues in the few productions of the opera that have taken place since the premiere in 1836, even though the universal consensus is that the first two acts contain perhaps the best music Donizetti ever wrote. Even Donizetti himself considered the third act to be of lesser musical quality to the first two, and tinkered with it to the point that a new libretto was constructed for it which condensed the act from two to one scene. Recent productions have cut up to 90% of the act and simply tacked on choral numbers (and a couple of arias) from the third act to the second act to finish off the opera with a tragic ending, which the original actually doesn’t have! Cutting the third act is problematic because it cuts both the entire role of Queen Isabel, and denies the opera its original happy ending. However, the work was a major leap for Donizetti in the direction of French grand opera (there is a third act ballet, the male characters dominate the work, the orchestral features are richer than those of earlier Donizetti operas, and the three-act structure demonstrates similarities to five-act well-made plays of French playwright and librettist Eugene Scribe). The review here is of the Opera Rara release from 1988, which is of the original three act version.

SETTING: Calais, then part of England, now in France, 1346. The opera depicts the historical conditions surrounding the siege of Calais by Edward III of England towards the close of the Hundred Years War. The city had been ordered by King Philip VI of France to hold out at any cost against the English. This led to the city starving and eventually the burghers of the city pleaded for a truce, which turned into a hostage situation. The thin narrative of the opera depicts a family drama involving Eustachio (baritone) the mayor of Calais, his son Aurelio (mezzo-soprano) who is the primary character of the opera, and daughter-in-law Eleonora (soprano), set against the public life of the city and the invading English forces of Eduardo (baritone). That is, until Queen Isabella (soprano) shows up fresh from her own victory over the Scots. In real life, the English queen did in fact save the six Burghers of Calais from execution, although it is possible that the entire incident was an act of political theatre concocted by King Edward.


ACT 1: (40 minutes)

Scene 1: Outside the walls of Calais.

0: The overture *** could be titled Dawn over Calais and is rather striking and very markedly French in its orchestral features.  There is not specific tune which dominates, (although there is one theme that gets shifted from the horns to the clarinet and then to the flutes which recurs), and the number ends with some furious chorusing from the soldiers. Dramatically, the scene features the arrival of Aurelio, who steals bread as the English soldiers sleep. One of the soldiers awakens, and alerts all of them.

5: Fuggi codardo The soldiers embark on a solid and tuneful chorus *** as they describe how Aurelio escaped them by jumping into the sea and swimming away.

Scene 2: The interior of the Municipal Palace, Calais.

8, 15, 19: Le fibre, o Dio!/Un instante i mali obblio This is followed by a beautiful string passage *** which continues into a recitative for Eustache as he describes the misery of his fellow townspeople. Eleonora arrives fearing that Aurelio has been killed while escaping the English. Father and wife embark on a highly dramatic duet *** which has an extreme orchestral richness to it. A tenor burgher named Giovanni shows up with news that Aurelio is indeed alive, and father and wife rejoice ***. 

23: Al mio cor oggetti amati The family, including little son Filippo, are reunited in an aria di sortita *** for Aurelio the cabaletta *** of which involves him telling everyone that they must fight to the death against the English.

30, 37: Che s’indugia?/Come trigi  The people of the city break into the palace, incited by a stranger who tells them to kill Eustache and surrender to the English, what ensues is a remarkable melody which has next to nothing to do with the dramatic intensity of the situation ***, but it is very tuneful. Eustache reveals that the stranger is in fact an English spy sent to divide the French (Donizetti uses a tip-toe Big Ben reference to reveal this). The townspeople beg forgiveness and Eustache orders the men to the walls and the women indoors as the battle is about to begin with a furious act finale ***.

ACT 2: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: Apartments in the palace.

0: Another good introduction, this time featuring clarinet ***.

2: Breve riposo a lui concede il sonno Eleonora sings a lullaby to the sleeping Filippo ***.

5, 7: T’arresta barbar/Io l’udia chiarmarmi Aurelio awakens after a terrifying nightmare of Filippo torn to pieces by English soldiers ***. He and Eleonora embark on a beautiful duet ***. They are interrupted by Giovanni, who tells Aurelio that the English king plans on discussing terms.

Scene 2: An official public gathering place in the city.

16: D’un popolo afflitto The people gather in fear *** as Edomondo, messenger of the English king, arrives with the terms: the city will be left unharmed if six nobles will be handed over to the English and sacrificed. This naturally horrifies the French.

21, 28: Oh colpo!/Padre, ah di!  Eustache orders silence from his people and signs his own name as the first of the six to be killed by the English. Aurelio attempts to sign, but is stopped by his father *** at first as others come to sign, but eventually Aurelio is able to become the sixth ***. Aurelio says good-bye forever to Eleonora and Filippo.

34: O sacra polve The farewell *** as the six set off for the English camp.

ACT 3: (40 minutes)

Scene 1: The English camp.

2: L’avvenir per me fia tutto The act starts off with the first re-hashed music in the entire opera: a repeat of the opening choral tune from the first act (an obvious leitmotif for the English). King Eduardo greets the news that the French have agreed to his terms with an oddly pedestrian cabaletta * for someone who anticipates becoming king of England, Scotland, and France. Queen Isabella arrives amid choral and cannon fanfare **, which makes the situation slightly more pulsating, but otherwise we are back to King Edward and his decidedly dim little number. At least the orchestra adds a little oomph. Isabella is disappointed that she has been more successful in conquering the Scots than her husband has been with the French, as she has taken prisoners already and he has yet to take the Walls of Calais.

10: With all that taken care of, it is time for an eight minute long ballet **. Oddly better than suspected, it consists of two parts: a series of dances for the Scottish prisoners, and then a military march. Edmondo breaks in finally announcing the arrival of the six French hostages and then either they arrive or the scene changes.

Scene 2: The royal tent.

26: Raddopia I baci tuoi Donizetti gives the entire pre-execution scene a rather pedestrian treatment: Eleonora and Isabella get the best features of this, while the men are oddly underplayed. There isn’t much to mention musically until Aurelio finally addresses his wife in a beautiful aria which turns into a duet with chorus ***. Eventually, Isabella begs her husband to have mercy and he relents: the Frenchmen are spared and all ends happily.

36: Fin che I secoli vivranno The opera ends with a re-hash chorus * based on two themes from earlier music (including a final go at the Scottish dance).


Donizetti wrote a four minute long happy rondo-finale for Eleonora as an alternate ending to the opera replacing the chorus and ballet. It is worth mentioning *, but the music is mostly reused from earlier in the opera and given the disinterest Donizetti had in the convention, it really should be seen as just a curio.


I have an apology to make to Donizetti. The first two acts of this opera are amazing. At times I really could not believe this was actually Donizetti. Yet again, he did call this his most thought out score. There is a dramatic power here that is usually only found in alpha plus operas. What keeps it from being part of that elite class are two factors: the weakness of the third act in comparison to the first two and the slenderness of the plot. There almost is no storyline at all in the first two acts even if they are musically gorgeous. The third has more of a scenario (sort of, it does get arrested by an eight minute case of ballet) but is musically inferior even if it really isn’t any less than very good. Nevertheless, definitely an alpha, and to some, perhaps, an alpha plus.

One response to “Gaetano Donizetti: L’assedio di Calais (1836)”

  1. I often like to ask a “What if” question.
    What if Donizetti had lived to the age of 70-something and had still been composing well into his 60s. Don’t you think he would have finally got round to reworking the problematic act 3, because the first two acts of this are indeed brilliant.
    And I would really love to a heard a late 1850s / early 1860s Donizetti masterpiece!


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