English Touring Opera at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Until Saturday, May 25.

Review by ANGELA SINGER

DONIZETTI'S The Seige of Calais - about a city starved into submission by the English King Edward III in 1346 at the beginning of the Hundred Years War - is a powerful story simply told through the fate of one family.

Everyone in the audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre must have been puzzled last night as to why this perfect opera is so rarely performed, when we saw this version so beautifully staged, superbly sung and with performances to touch your heart.

At the core of this beautiful opera is the Italian tradition of the "trouser role" for a soprano. Both the young husband and wife at the centre of the story were written to be sung by women. Apparently, writing in Naples in 1836, Donizetti simply couldn't find a tenor good enough. Hence you have the most exquisite duets between Helen Sherman as the young hero Aurelio and Paula Sides as his wife Eleonora. They are transformational. You walk out of the theatre feeling taller.

There is stirling singing in other lead roles from Cozmin Sime as Edoardo III and Eddie Wade as Eustachio, Aurelio's father and leader of the city. Throughout this exhilarating piece, designed by Samal Blak and directed by James Conway, with the orchestra conducted by Jeremy Silver, all the singing and the performances that go with them are flawless and flawlessly blended together.

As the opera opens, we see Aurelio climbing over the city wall, risking death to find food for his family. He gets back safely and seeing his wife, his baby son and his father says who shall I embrace first.

As the siege progresses, the English offer the French citizens a deal. They can be pardoned for their resistance but only if six men volunteer to be executed. At first the leaders say no they will all die together and all the conquerors will find of the city will be ashes. But then they picture the slaughter of the women and children and decide that six will be sacrificed to save the rest.

The city could be anywhere, as soon as two tattered women come on to the stage carrying a baby wrapped in rags, you think of Syria and refugees fleeing from death with children in their arms.

This company has brought a freshness to a treasured piece. See it and you will want to see more. And you can. Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is on tonight (Wednesday, May 22) and Saturday (May 25) and Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte tomorrow (Thursday, May 23) and Friday May 24.

English Touring Opera describes itself as Opera That Moves. It certainly does. It refreshes the soul.