Opera requires a certain suspension of disbelief. (How else could beautiful women dying of consumption nail those high notes?) Works in the Italian bel canto repertoire often take place in the Middle Ages or Renaissance and require a bit of extra suspension. Both period and suspension are true of Donizetti’s “L’assedio di Calais.” But for those who can put all notions of realism aside, sit back, and enjoy the show, Odyssey Opera offered a rare treat at the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
The work went unstaged for nearly 150 years after its initial productions, only receiving its American premiere this year at the Glimmerglass Festival. It is loosely based on true events near the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, when, after Calais had been besieged and blockaded by the English army for a year, King Edward III of England offered to spare the starving city if six citizens sacrificed their lives. Six men prepared to die, but were spared at the last minute by the intervention of the Queen of England, who asked her husband to spare them.
Much of the opera focuses on those men; unlike much Italian 19th-century repertoire, the linchpin is not the leading soprano. The staging did set up Lucia Cesaroni, as the mayor’s daughter-in-law Eleonora, as the opera’s heart and soul. Making her Odyssey debut, she was an elegant Madonna with a sensuous, plangent voice.
However, the opera’s true heart was mezzo-soprano Magda Gartner in a pants (cross-dressing) role as Eleonora’s hot-headed husband, Aurelio, one of the six sacrifices. With a voice that could brush the ground and kiss the stratosphere, Gartner’s vocalism and acting alike conveyed the horror of living under siege, even when the music was dissonantly jaunty in comparison to the lyrics -- for example, Aurelio’s aria describing a nightmare in which his baby son is slaughtered. Any moment when she and Cesaroni joined in harmony was exquisite.
Baritone James Westman made a noble, earthy Mayor of Calais in his first Odyssey role, and Boston mainstay Neal Ferreira’s pinging tenor made for a convincingly anxious Giovanni d’Aire. As English soldiers and Calais citizens, the Odyssey Opera Chorus was fiery and expressive. Gil Rose conducted an orchestra that was adept if not 100 percent at ease with the material; the zippy clarinet solo that began Act II was especially good. Minimalistic medieval sets and costumes by Dan Daly and Brooke Stanton, respectively, established the setting well.
A last-minute stunner arrived with soprano Deborah Selig’s Queen Isabella, a haughty royal with a heart of gold based on Edward III’s wife, Philippa of Hainault, but renamed for the opera’s dedicatee, the Queen Mother. Selig’s silvery, agile singing lent great effect to the final act. The flashing runs in which she beseeched her kingly husband for mercy initiated the joyful chorus that concluded the opera, with even the chorus of previously bloodthirsty English soldiers joining in. See, I told you you’d have to suspend some disbelief.
At Huntington Avenue Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Thursday.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.