Santa Fe, N.M. — Donizetti’s La fille du regiment or The Daughter of the Regiment, offers some welcome comic relief to the Santa Fe Opera season. It is a delightful confection that Donizetti wrote, his only opéra comique, while in Paris supervising the French production of his best-known opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Although the premiere performance was not much of a success, the opera has found a permanent place in the repertoire.
The soprano role is a plum for a soprano with comic capabilities and coloratura chops, but the opera is best known for the first act tenor aria (really an ensemble), “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” It is a tenor’s tour de force, with its showy display of nine high C’s. In a 1972 performance at the Metropolitan Opera, those nine notes catapulted a young Luciano Pavarotti to international fame and the aria remains a tenor’s ticket to the big time.
Director Ned Canty puts the Santa Fe production in the place and time indicated in the score (imagine that), and he highlights the comic aspects of plot with a large helping of shtick. In this, he depends on Chaplinesque physical comedy, sometimes exaggerated, but without ever quite crossing the line into burlesque. In addition, his clever English version of the French dialog updates the jokes and, since it is delivered in English, gives it immediacy with the audience. (So often clever lines delivered in a foreign language get laughs when the supertitles appear, which it not necessarily when the punch line is spoken.)
Fortunately for Canty (and us), Santa Fe assembled a cast of performers who are equally gifted vocally and comically. Greatly assisted by conductor Speranza Scappucci’s brisk tempi and energetic approach, the opera amuses and sparkles from the first notes.
The plot is typical of comic operas at the time with exaggerated characterizations and suddenly revealed identities that upset the best laid plans. Decades later, Gilbert and Sullivan raided such operas for their even less probable versions of such plot lines.
In short: Found as a baby in the heat of battle by Sergeant Sulpice of the 21st Regiment of the French army, Marie is adopted by every member of the regiment. Raised with only male parentage, she is a masculine acting tomboy able to fight with the best of them. One day, while exploring the surrounds, she falls from a hillside and is caught by Tonio, a local Tyrolean (one of the Austrian states). They immediately fall in love, which creates problems with her “fathers” who expect her to marry one of them.
To complicate matters, the Marquise of Berkenfeld finds the French army blocking her progress back to her home in Austria and is stranded. Sulpice agrees to escort her home safely but their conversation revels that Marie is the long lost heir to her titles and lands. This changes everything. As Marie reluctantly departs for her new life as a “lady,” Tonio arrives informing her that he enlisted in the regiment so that he could qualify as a husband. Of course, now it is that generous act that will separate them.
The main humor in the second act comes from Marie’s hopeless efforts at being refined and the frustration of the Marquise at the lack of success of her efforts to prepare her for an important event. The Marquise has arranged a marriage with prince, so that Marie will be financially secure, and the exalted Duchess of Krakenthrop herself will represent the absent prince for the signing of the marriage certificate. Tonio and the regiment arrive just in time to save her. His fervent plea for her hand softens the Marquise, who has her eye of Sulpice, and she relents. All ends happily for everyone, except for the Duchess who storms out in a fury.
As Tonio, Alek Shrader brings a gleaming tenor voice and impeccable comic timing to the role. He nails all nine high C’s without much effort, but it is his mastery of physical comedy that sticks in the memory. Shrader channels Chaplin and gives Tonio a clumsiness that makes even simple things, like putting on his hat, a challenge.
Kevin Burdette is equally funny with his wildly exaggerated take on Sulpice. Taking advantage of Burdette abilities, Canty gives him lots to do, including a hysterical pantomime in the beginning of the second act. He is terrific in this role: in his singing, the delivery of his spoken lines and in letting loose his inner clown.
Anna Christy certainly has the vocal fireworks needed to carry off this highflying role. She is not the usual chirpy coloratura soprano that you expect. Instead, she has a voice with touch of a lyric soprano’s sound, which serves her well in the more serious parts, such as her touching arias in both acts. She is tomboyish but doesn’t exaggerate.
Phyllis Pancella appears to be playing two different Marquise s. In the first act, she is the more traditional buffoonish character you would expect as she hangs comically out of her carriage. However, in the second act, we see an elegant woman who is torn and devastated by her situation.
Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin doesn’t have a note to sing as the overstuffed Baroness of Krakenthorp but she steals the scene from the moment of her grand entrance to the swoop of her exit. Looking like a monument of herself, she barks out her lines with an imperious air and a voice that descends into basso profundo territory. She delivers a masterful performance.
The set offers a stark a contrast to the two halves of Marie’s life. In the first act, it is a pile of precariously balanced furniture, and whatever else that could be found, haphazardly thrown together to act as a barricade against the invaders. Pure chaos. The second act is the Berkenfeld mansion: cool, ridged, and as formal as the bereft Marquise.
This opera is pure comedy and doesn’t explore any of the profundities life. True, the Marquise learns, almost too late, that it is better to own up to your mistakes than to try to hide them, and steadfast true love does triumph in the end. But, this production takes the opera at face value and delivers a lighthearted comedy.
The production gives a few belly laughs and keeps the audience smiling throughout. Add to that some wonderful singing and you have a delightful evening of opera.
» Other reviews from the 2015 Santa Fe Opera season: