If there's a more sparkling little bauble in opera's crown than Gaetano Donizetti's 1843 powder puff operetta La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) I'd like to hear it. This winsome piece, bubbling away at Opera in the Heights, might be the most French opera not written by a Frenchman.
Its plot is pure whimsy, and Donizetti's skill with melody charms completely. This opera comique (song and spoken dialogue) is all about singing. Legendary lyric sopranos like Nellie Melba, Lily Pons, Joan Sutherland, and most notably Beverly Sills, have brought tomboy Marie to life, and classic lyric tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Alfredo Kraus, and Juan Diego Flores have risen to the challenging ten high Cs in the opera's most jubilant aria “Ah, mes amis!” Full of froth, martial airs, and young love defying society's convention, Donizetti's little valentine to France beguiles thoroughly.
Fortunately, Opera in the Heights has assembled a very fine cast to embroider Donizetti's musical wit. As vivandière (canteen carrier) Marie, raised from infancy by an outfit of the French army, soprano Lindsay Russell is vibrant, feisty, and utterly delightful. Petite and pretty as any Marie you'll ever likely see on stage, she sails through her filigreed coloratura with shining top notes securely hit, an operatic Annie Oakley dead shot. When she belts the opera's most patriotic tune, “Salut à la France!” she props up her leg and lets rip. You immediately understand why this song almost became France's national anthem, and why somewhere during every Bastille Day this stirring march is played throughout the country.
As love besotted Tonio, an Austrian so enamored of Marie that he enlists in the enemy army just to be near her, tenor Spencer Viator radiates youthful ardor and heroic voice. You can't even see the strain as he sings his showstopper aria, brushing off those treacherous high Cs as if they're but pesky gnats. As Sulpice, surrogate father to Marie, baritone Darren Drone projects lighthearted macho charm and a drill sergeant's commanding voice. As snotty La Marquise, who will surprise everyone with her later disclosures concerning Marie's parentage, mezzo Laura Coale, heard so memorably at OH in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo and Adamo's Little Women, adds another fully-realized character to her growing rep. With expert comic timing and punchy delivery, Coale gives the Marquise a tinge of Wilde's Lady Bracknell with shades of classic Hollywood's Edna May Oliver.
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Rounding out the cast, baritone Austin Hoeltzel makes short work of simpering servant Hortensius, while actor ThuNhi Barrus, OH's French diction coach, as imperious Duchess of Krackentorp, has wandered in from some grade-B Universal horror movie. I wouldn't be surprised if she wears a necklace of garlic bulbs under her diamonds. So completely different in style from all around her, the comic denouement trips up and barely recovers. Of course it does, because here's Russell and Viator and OH's well-drilled chorus to save the day. You can't miss with a reprise of “Salut à la France!”
Maestro Eiki Isomura allows Donizetti to fizz, and while the strings could stand a little tightening, the solo cello is superbly played (although I don't know if it was H.P. Scott Card or Patrick Moore who caressed such beauty out of the instrument.) Directed with a perfunctory light touch by J.J. Hudson, the production looks glossy wearing Macy Lyne's Empire-inspired gowns and apt Napoleonic mufti. Adam Crinson's unit set is lovingly bucolic, except for that treacherous-looking side staircase without railing; while J. Mitchell Cronin's lighting bathes everyone in pastoral sentiment.
If you want a first taste of opera, Donizetti and OH's collaboration is a sure bet. It's ear-candy for sure.
La Fille du Regiment continues at 2 pm, Sunday; and 7:30 pm Thursday and Saturday through September 29 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $40.50 - $95.50.