Donizetti’s daffy French comic opera “La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)” became the Santa Fe Opera’s latest “discovery” from the core 19th century French repertory – a body of works that was neglected during the first half century of the opera company’s existence, but which it has been exploring with a series of brilliant new productions.
For its new “Daughter”, the company commissioned director Ned Canty. He set the opera, as Donizetti intended, in 1805 in Austria’s Tyrolean Alps.
For “Daughter”, Canty enlisted two of the stars – Illinois soprano Anna Christy and Tennessee bass Kevin Burdette – from Canty’s previous Santa Fe hit [See Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011],
Showing mastery of a vexingly complex role role that is filled with physical comedy, coloratura fireworks and arias displaying intense emotion, Christy was an endearing Marie.
A sprightly actor, Christy delivered the 21st regiment’s rataplans and military anthems with flourish and was very funny in the scene in which she practices “dignified” vocal arts to the Marquise’s accompaniment. She was especially effective in her haunting second act ballad.
[Below: Anna Christy is Marie, Daughter of the Regiment; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]and
Christy is paired with Ohio tenor Alek Shrader, as Tonio, Marie’s Tyrolean sweetheart who joins the French army’s 21st regiment to advance his marriage prospects.
Shrader’s career has been associated with the role of Tonio, and its showstopping aria Ah, mes amis (more properly, a series of melodic exchanges with the men of the 21st regiment ending in the famous series of nine high C’s). [For Shrader’s take on the aria, see Rising Stars – An Interview with Alek Shrader.]
Shrader’s vocal instrument, now blossoming into a warm and full-voiced lyric tenor, evoked pathos and heartfelt emotion in Tonio’s second act aria Pour me rapprocher de Marie.
[Below: Tonio (Alek Shrader, right) intends to marry Marie (Anna Christy, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Shrader has abundant skills as a physical comedian that he brings to any comic role. For this production, the Santa Fe Opera has paired Shrader with the incomparable basso buffo Burdette [See Buff Buffo: An Interview with Kevin Burdette], assuring sparkling interplay (some quite possibly spontaneous) whenever Shrader and Burdette are near each other onstage.
Burdette, unlike many singers cast in the lower voice comic roles, is vocally secure, is athletic and has a trim appearance that makes Sulpice’s budding romance with the Marquise seem plausible.
[Below: Kevin Burdette is the Sergeant Sulpice; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Director Canty has envisioned the role of the Marquise of Berkenfeld as a woman in her mid-40s (rather than the more elderly spinster seen in many productions). That role was assigned to Missouri mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, in her Santa Fe Opera debut, who displayed a contralto range for her amusing first aria, chiding the warring armies for their failure to show proper respect for noblewomen.
Pancella’s portrait of the Marquise was sympathetic, even in the early scenes where she might seem a villain. Thus, her succumbing to Tonio’s passionate plea for her to allow Marie to marry whomever she wished is believable, as is the Marquise’s decision not just to abandon her quest for a highborn marriage for Marie, but to allow herself to show her passionate feelings for Sulpice.
[Below: The Marquise of Berkenfeld (Phyllis Pancella, left) is accompanied by her majordomo, Hortensius (Calvin Griffin, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Rhode Island mezzo-soprano Judith Christin, noted for her long career in opera’s female character roles, including many at the Santa Fe Opera, was cast as an outrageous Duchess of Krakenthorp.The Duchess represents the worst of the snobbish “old nobility”, for whom young love is an irrelevancy.
Christin’s appearance continues the long tradition of assigning this great cameo role to a distinguished veteran artist.
[Below: the Duchess of Krakenthorp (Judith Christin, center, seated) is accompanied by women of the nobility and her notary (Jorell Williams, seated left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
In the 21st century, many of Donizetti’s works, that had disappeared from the standard repertory of most of the world’s opera houses, have enjoyed a worldwide revival of interest. I have written about the “Donizetti revival” occurring in two stages – first, the resurrection of Donizetti works as showpieces for major artists, and, second, as operas revived for their dramatic and theatrical content.
The renewed popularity of the original French version of the opera is associated with the famous performances beginning in the mid-1960s by dramatic coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland and a young tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, that Sutherland secured as her Tonio. Over the next half-century the opera’s popularity continued to surge.
[Below: Marie (Anna Christy, center), her fiance Tonio (Alek Shrader, left) and Sergeant Sulpice, the leader of her regiment (Kevin Burdette, right) are reunited; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
For its first production ever at the Santa Fe Opera, director Ned Canty has studied the opera’s origins as a new form of French comic opera. He has restored (and translated into English) the spirit of the French spoken dialogue, with an occasional contemporary reference [e.g., when Marie, who regards herself as the daughter of every member of the 21st regiment, introduces two of the regiment’s members to Tonio as her “fathers”, Tonio exclaims how modern the idea is of a girl having two fathers.]
In his conceptualization of the opera, Canty envisions the Tyrolean villagers erecting barricades to slow down the advancing revolutionary armies of Napoleon’s France. The barricades (created by set designer Allen Moyer) are masses of late 18th century junk – broken wooden furniture, old spinning wheels – providing the cast with frequent opportunities for gags.
The 21st regiment has been together for some time, and obviously dates from the Revolutionary times of the La patrie en danger decree when ragtag French armies were assembled with whatever uniforms the soldiers might have made for themselves. Therefore, the uniforms of the 21st, also designed by Moyer, differ from one another.
The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera
Over the past several years, the Santa Fe Opera has invested in new productions of operas never before performed by the company. [See Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010 and Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Pérez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011 and The Stylishly Gallic Santa Fe Opera: Eric Cutler, Nicole Cabell Radiant in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” – July 31, 2012.]
“Daughter of the Regiment” is the fourth French opera to open the Santa Fe Opera season in the past five years, each with an engaging new production. Another classic French opera, Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet”, will be performed next season for the first time in company history.
[Below: the tricolor, the emblem of revolutionary France is celebrated by the men of the 21st regiment; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The French repertory had long been undervalued by many opera companies worldwide (including important companies in France). That the Santa Fe Opera has emerged as one the world’s places where respectful productions of important French works can be seen augurs well for the future of opera.
It was especially fitting that as the French tricolor was being waved onstage in the final scene, that the theater’s left and right sides were illuminated to show pairs of men also waving tricolors.
Other Musical Notes
Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a spirited performance. Susanne Sheston was chorus master for this piece in which the chorus of men (21st regiment) and the chorus of women (the Duchess’ entourage) have major roles each with much stage business accompanying their vocal performances.
Ohio bass-barione Calvin Griffin was Hortensius, the Marquise’s majordomo. North Carolina bass-baritone Adrian N. Smith was a Corporal, New York baritone Jorell Williams a notary, Minnesota tenor Jack Swanson a Peasant.
I recommend this cast and production enthusiastically, both for the veteran operagoer and for persons new to opera.
For my program notes on “Daughter of the Regiment” for another production, see: Gaetano Donizetti: European Romanticism and The Pathway to Verdi.