The San Diego Opera opened their four opera 2013 season by mounting Emilio Sagi’s immensely amusing production of Donizetti’s melody-filled “La Fille du Regiment”, time-shifted to the era of World War II.
Premiering in Paris in 1840 (composed a generation before Gounod’s “Faust”), “La Fille” is the oldest 19th century French opera that can be said to have a secure place in the standard opera repertory – a romantic comedy that always seems fresh and funny.
In fact, Donizetti is arguably the most successful composer of all time in the romantic comedy operatic genre, with “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “Don Pasquale” also demonstrating what zany things can happen to delay the inevitable marriage of a couple in love.
The cast assembled in San Diego included world class interpreters of Donizetti’s operas, both dramatic and comic.
L’Ubica Vargicova’s Marie
The title role, Marie (who at opera’s beginning is unaware that she is the love-child of a wealthy French noblewoman with no other heirs), was sung by Slovakian soprano L’Ubica Vargicova.
[Below: L’Ubica Vargicova as Marie; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Marie is a role with its share of coloratura fireworks, but it also contains two arias through which a soprano must communicate the genuine pathos of Marie’s resignation to duty imposed by society rather than pursuit of her own happiness . It also requires a good sense of comic timing in the opera’s many witty scenes.
Vargicova, dressed in a 1940s Andrews Sisters hairdo and (for the first act, before she is transported to the mansion that is to be her home) a WAC’s uniform, successfully met the requisites of the part.
Vargicova has returned to the San Diego Opera four years after her brilliant performance as Gilda [see my review at Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009]. She previously had been seen in Southern California as the Queen of the Night [see Conlon’s Magical Revival of Mozart’s “Flute” at L. A. Opera – January 10, 2009.]
Stephen Costello’s Tonio
The evening was the occasion of Stephen Costello’s role debut as Tonio.
Tonio, Marie’s love interest, is, of course, not the title role, nor a role even as long as Marie’s, but about a half century ago, tenor Luciano Pavarotti transformed the public’s perception of the opera and Tonio’s role forever.
The role depicts a lovesick local lad who, apparently curious about the occupying 21st regiment, met and courted Marie before the opera begins. The role contains abundant opportunities to show off the lyric tenor voice, in duets with Marie, in a lively trio (staged by Sagi with an homage to a trio by Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor in Stanley Donen’s film Singin’ in the Rain), and in solo arias in which he expresses his ardent love.
[Below: Stephen Costello as Tonio; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
But it is Tonio’s aria, or more properly, a series of short arias that collectively are identified as O mes amis, sung with the chorus of the men of the 21st Regiment, that makes Tonio one of the plum roles for the lyric tenor.
The 21st Regiment, to which the life of the infant Marie had been entrusted, is, to a man, protective of her, each taking on the responsibility of being her “father”. Therefore, Tonio feels the obligation to ask each of the soldiers for Marie’s hand.
Before he takes that step, he enlists in the regiment (Costello stripping to his skivvies while the men of the 21st dress him in his new uniform). Then he pleads his case to the, at first, reluctant soldiers, who express their collective doubt.
But his argument that she has expressed her love for him and he for her cause the soldiers to relent, and, finally, to grant him a father’s blessing.
At this Tonio sings the final refrain with four pairs of high Cs, ending on a bravura ninth high C. Successfully completed, and Costello was spot on on every note, it is irresistable to audiences. It is one of the greatest showstoppers in all of opera.
One can always expect a sustained audience ovation. Such occurred in San Diego, with Costello’s coy Tonio facing the regiment, his back to the audience, but turning his head part way to acknowledge the applause.
[Below: Tonio (Stephen Costello, left) expresses his love to Marie (L’Ubica Vargicova, right); edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
(Donizetti, as I pointed out in the article Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and the Pathway to Verdi published in the San Diego Opera Performances Magazine, which is the program for the performance, had much to do with the popularization of the idea of the heroic tenor who is expected to belt out high C’s at dramatic moments.)
This is the fourth role for Costello at San Diego Opera, whose director Ian Campbell recognized his beautiful tenor voice and star quality early in Costello’s career [See my interviews at Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.]
Costello, still in his early 30s, is at an age when the tenor voice often grows in size and power. In fact, his voice is developing in a way that suggests he may consider heavier roles in the future. This a is a perfect time in his career for him to be assaying the role of Tonio. It’s worth a trip to San Diego to hear him.
Ewa Podles’ Marquise of Berkenfeld
I had been charmed by this [Sagi’s] production over five years ago in Houston [See Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007.] Both its Houston and San Diego mountings shared the extraordinary comic and vocal talents of Polish contralto Ewa Podles.
[Below: Contralto Ewa Podles as the Marquise de Berkenfeld; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
With the deep, true contralto voice that is a great rarity, Podles is arresting in whatever role she appears. This one allows her to show off her comic skills as well.
Kevin Burdette’s Sulpice
Unlike many comic buffo roles, that of Sergeant Sulpice, who seems to have commanded the 21st regiment for a couple of decades, concludes the opera with a romance of his own, winning the heart of the wealthy, lonely Marquise.
[Below: Kevin Burdette as Sergeant Sulpice; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Burdette was effective in this role. A leaner, fitter Sergeant Sulpice than what most “Fille” audiences are used to, this well-respected comic basso was an engaging, very funny presence. [For a recent review of another Burdette success, see Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011.]
Emilio Sagi’s Production
Sagi’s production shifts the setting of the action, without any impact on the storyline, from a French regiment occupying Austria, to an American regiment that has settled in France. [For a production with French soldiers in Austria, although time-shifted to World War I, see: Debuting Diana Damrau Delights as Donizetti Diva: San Francisco “Fille du Regiment” – October 13, 2009.]
For those who might argue that the device of placing an American regiment in the France of World War II is historically unrealistic, given that they have raised Marie from infancy, consider that even Donizetti’s idea of a French regiment hunkering down for a 20 year period in the Austrian Hapsburg Empire of 1840 is equally improbable. Few operatic plots can be taken as historical documentaries.
Julio Galan’s Sets and Costumes
The brilliant sets and effective costumes were designed by Julio Galan. The first act takes place in a tavern that is not only the watering hole for the regiment’s soldiers, but also the place where the traveling Marquise and her servant and companion, Hortensius (expertly played by Malcolm MacKenzie), rest from her troubled travels.
The second act, located in the Marquise’s elegant household, towards opera’s end opens to an appropriately romantic moonlit sky.
[Below: the Marquise (Ewa Podles, left) finds herself interested in Sergeant Sulpice (Kevin Burdette, right); edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
But in the meantime, Sagi’s second act is a merry whirl, thanks in large part to the Marquise’s wildly uninhibited staff of servants.
As noted in my review of the production’s showing in Houston, the arrival of the Marquise’s snooty aristocratic friends to what is to be the betrothal of Marie to a rich, but mousy, nobleman, provides another opportunity for mirth.
The often-satirized high society practice of announcing the arrival of each important party guest, provides Sagi and the opera company the opportunity of having some fun with the communities surrounding the opera company.
Whereas Houston’s arriving aristocrats were from East Texas towns, it was newly annointed nobility from San Diego County that arrived on scene. First arriving were the real life financial benefactors of San Diego Opera’s 2013 season, re-titled as Prince Conrad Prebys and Princess Debbie [Turner].
They were followed by various duchesses, dukes and lesser barons representing such San Diego County places as Anza-Borrego, Jamul, Leucadia, Coronado and Rancho Santa Fe (nearby Hillcrest, for reasons best known to the audience, getting the greatest laugh.)
The party guest with the most to do was the Duchess of Krakenthorp, mother of the intended groom, played by soprano Carol Vaness, who sang some phrases from Dalila’s famous second act aria from Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”, the next offering in the San Diego Opera’s 2013 season.
[Below: Hortensius (Malcolm MacKenzie, left) expresses his concerns to the Duchess of Krakenthorp (Carol Vaness, right); edited image based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowiz photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Yves Abel conducted the melliflously sounding San Diego Opera Orchestra. Scott Sikon played the Corporal. Charles F. Prestinari was the chorus master, Marie Barrett the lighting designer.
I recommend the San Diego Opera mounting of this production unreservedly, and recommend it both for long-time opera goers and those new to the art form.
For my other reviews of Stephen Costello performances at San Diego Opera, see: Costello, Perez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011, and als0,