United States Donizetti, La Fille du régiment: Soloists, Seattle Opera, Yves Abel (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 19.10.2013 (BJ)
Hortensius: Karl Marx Reyes (tenor)
The Marquise of Berkenfeld: Joyce Castle (mezzo-soprano)
Sulpice: Alexander Hajek (baritone)
Marie: Sarah Coburn (soprano)
Tonio: Lawrence Brownlee (tenor)
Corporal: Stephen Fish (bass-baritone)
The Duchess of Krakenthorp: Peter Kazaras
Soldiers, peasants, wedding guests, servants: Seattle Opera Chorus
Emilio Sagi (director)
Julio Galá (set and costumes)
Connie Yun (lighting)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
John Keene (chorus master)
Elisabeth Ellis, John Keene, Marie-France Lefebvre., David McDade (musical preparation)
The Daughter of the Regiment was written in 1840. The setting of the story, Seattle Opera’s program book told us, is “A small village in France in the final days of World War II.” The casual reader of this information could well have been forgiven for concluding that Donizetti and his librettists were endowed with an exceptional gift for prophecy—but of course, the 20th-century setting was not their brain-child, but that of the director of this production, Emilio Sagi.
When productions transfer action to periods far removed from the time the original creators of an opera had in mind, my first instinct is to ask, “Why?” There are many great works that cannot be so modified without serious damage. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is one such masterpiece: scholars may believe that the notorious “droit du seigneur” never really existed, but its threat is an essential backdrop to the story; move that story to our own time, and its atmosphere is materially if not necessarily fatally altered.
But when the story of this particular Donizetti comic opera is shifted 140 years forward from the time of its original setting in 1800 Tyrol, even a pompous purist like me may be inclined to ask instead, “Well, why not?” Perhaps Sagi’s conception deprived one or two social nuances of their natural sphere of operation. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine a 20th-century American regiment behaving in quite the quaintly courtly manner of their 19th-century French forerunners. But no serious damage was done to the essential character of the work.
Dramatic verisimilitude was not what Donizetti, half a century before verismo hit the opera stage, was aiming for. He and the writers of his story were concerned to offer some piquantly picturesque background, create a group of characters ranging from young lovers by way of soldiers to stuffed-shirt oldsters, and then let the laughs rip.
With Julio Galá’s gorgeous sets and handsome costumes, borrowed from the Teatro Comunale di Bologna and enhanced by Connie Yun’s magical lighting, the production that opened Seattle Opera’s season fulfilled those aims with admirable verve. This was a quality well in evidence also in the playing Yves Abel drew from the orchestra, and in the acting and singing of John Keene’s chorus.
Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee made a formidably charming and vocally spectacular pair of lovers. I thought that in Act I the silver-voiced Coburn’s scale passages came across as relatively undifferentiated slides, but after intermission all was well, with each note clearly defined. Like her, Brownlee is a talented actor, who made Tonio both convincing and sympathetic, and his comparably impressive voice and technique were close to the best I have heard from him in the past, though a few of his top notes, while clear and strong enough, seemed to carry a curious backing of additional resonance.
Local favorite Joyce Castle’s Marquise of Berkenfeld was a splendid case study in ill-judged good will and social confusion, Alexander Hajek’s Sulpice a no less aptly avuncular “American” sergeant, and the role of the major-domo Hortensius was neatly touched in by Karl Marx Reyes, whose parents must have had quite a sense of humor to supply him with a juxtaposition of Communist forenames and Royalist surname that constitutes a virtual microcosm of historical class conflict. In Act 2 another company stalwart, Peter Kazaras (himself no mean up-dater in his own productions), appeared as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, singing—in accordance with well-established tradition—a suitably drunken aria from Offenbach’s La Périchole. His acting was sufficiently funny, but was also leavened with a welcome vein of aristocratic decorum.
In the wedding scene, any remaining hint of realism was further upended by having guests at this supposedly French festivity announced as dukes and duchesses of such unlikely French locales as Puyallup and Sequim (both, I should explain for the benefit of distant readers, towns not far from Seattle). It was all good clean fun. The audience lapped it up with relish. And so did I.