The set-up: Houston's opera season is off to a roaring start with Opera in the Heights' lively, beautifully sung production of Gaetano Donizetti's operetta-in-training Daughter of the Regiment.
The execution: Written for Paris in 1840, Daughter is a delicious French bonbon: whipped up sweet and airy, without a thought in its head except love and making fun of the idle rich. Tomboy Marie has been raised and adopted by the not-so-rough Napoleonic soldiers, commanded by tender-hearted Sergeant Sulpice. She has fallen for peasant Tonio, but he's not a soldier, so her regiment refuses the marriage. She has also been revealed as an heiress and is taken from the army to become a lady. Don't worry, the tale ends happily. Donizetti spikes his comedy with a never-ending supply of tasty tunes: a choral prayer from the townsfolk, jaunty military airs from the Sgt. Bilko French army, a haunting, melancholy tune for Marie as she misses her lover (recalling Donizetti's masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor), then in a blink, a love waltz. When Tonio joins the army, his joy at being with her is so infectious Donizetti writes him a show-stopping cavatina, "Ah, mes amis," with its devilish eight high C's -- which is opera's equivalent of climbing Everest.
Under its new artistic director and conductor, maestro Enrique Carren-Robledo, Opera in the Heights has found a Toscanini. The whole enterprise is fresh and awake and newly transfused. The tempi are faster, the staging simple yet effective, the costumes lush and complementary. And what a stunning cast: Coloratura Erica Miller sings Marie as if it had been written for her. She sails through those treacherous roulades and filigreed passages for which Donizetti was so famed and then, slowing down, wraps her supple voice around those honeyed tunes of romance. She's also an agile comedian; with her hair in tufts and sporting a corset, she's an appropriate tough girl. (Soprano Ashlyn Rust sings Marie September 30 and October 2.)
Tenor Gennard Lombardozzi (what a great name for a tenor!) is movie-star dark and handsome, but, even better, sings like it. He tosses off those C notes without visible effort, square on, no fumbling for pitch. He's a natural foil for Miller's tomboy, and a dashing hero. Bass Stefano de Peppo sings adopted dad Sulpice with a rich, sympathetic hue, and is a delight to watch on stage, as well as hear. Instinctively, he turns caricature into character. And mezzo Nancy Markeloff, as comic Marquise de Berkenfield, steals her scenes with aplomb. When Marie, Tonio and Sulpice plop themselves down to sing their sprightly trio "Tous les trois réunis," their sheer pleasure infuses the house. No wonder this opera was so beloved by the Parisians (and then the world): It has charm to spare.
The verdict: For anyone wanting an appropriate introduction to opera, Daughter is funny, tuneful and timeless. In Opera in the Heights' sterling production, it's also a keeper.
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September 24, 29, 30; October 1, 2. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. 713-861-5303.