|Anna Christy and Alek Shrader in Fille du Regiment at the Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)
Santa Fe Opera's production of Gaetano Donizetti's Fille du Regiment hit all the right notes, and Alek Shrader in the role of Tonio hit all the high notes, the ones we heard him sing some years ago when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council award. His warm and funny performance was matched by Anna Christy, appealing as the tomboy Marie who counted an entire regiment as her collective father.
Ned Canty's direction was delightful, milking every ounce of humor from the story without overlooking the brief periods of melancholy. Physical humor was much in evidence with Mr. Shrader portraying Tonio as a bumbling hick who can't keep from tripping over his own feet. Mr. Shrader's instrument is not a large one but he uses it well and is a marvelously appealing performer. But the major share of humor came from the hilarious performance of bass Kevin Burdette whose Sergeant Sulpice outdid any of the comedy greats of the silent film epoch.
Mr. Canty not only emphasized the humor but also the pathos by including plentiful spoken dialogue; this served to illuminate the circumstances of the characters in a way previously shortchanged. We felt we really got to know the characters and to care about them.
Ms. Christy's skill at bel canto singing is impressive. Her instrument has a sweet childlike quality and a great deal of tonal clarity. The fioritura was dazzling in its accuracy and organic in its relationship to the text and the emotions. The colors in her voice changed in the sad "Il faut partir" at the end of Act I, eliciting ample sympathy for her plight.
Mr. Shrader is also capable of coloring his voice and although "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete" is the opera's hit tune with it's nine high C's, we enjoyed his "Depuis l'instant, dans mes bras" in Act I and his persuasive Hail Mary pass for Marie's hand in Act II.
As the Marquise of Berkenfeld, a name which Sulpice persisted in amusingly mispronouncing, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella was haughty at first in "Pour une femme de mon nom" but became warm and likable by the end when she relents and accepts her daughter's marriage to Tonio instead of to the favored aristocrat.
Apprentice bass Calvin Griffin again impressed us with his voice and dramatic abilities as he portrayed Hortensius, the Marquise's Major-domo--typically contemptuous of the French army but indulgent toward the Marquise. His scene at the chateau, where Sulpice is spending months recovering from a battle injury, had us in stitches as he sank into passive-aggressive behavior involving a wine bottle.
Once again we were thrilled by the performance of the apprentices in the chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston. The women enacted the Tyrolean citizens praying for deliverance from the French in Act I and in Act II the guests at the Chateau who were amusingly announced by Hortensius. The men portraying the regiment of French soldiers sounded marvelous in their regimental song.
In the pit Maestra Speranza Scappucci led a spirited performance of Donizetti's tuneful music. Much of the overture was in march time but there were plenty of lyrical moments and the conducting kept up the pace.
The opera takes place during the Napoleonic wars but there appears to be no bloodshed and the French regiment seems particularly kind to the Tyroliean natives whose land they are occupying. The praying natives have nothing to fear!
Scenic and Costume Design by Allen Moyer was delightful. In Act I, the villagers have erected a monumental pile of furniture as a barrier and in Act II, the Marquise's chateau is on a revolving stage which showed the front of the chateau and also the room behind the door where Marie gets her very funny singing lesson. The Marquise has been trying to overcome Marie's rustic and tomboyish nature to make an aristocratic lady out of her. The efforts are doomed to failure because the influence of her army upbringing has been just too strong. This is symbolized by her breaking into the regimental songs (encouraged by Sulpice) during her singing lesson.
The soldiers' uniforms are exactly what one would wish for--colorful and accurate to the 1830's. The Marquise's costume is in the newer Empire style, whereas the elderly Duchess of Krakenthorp (a spoken role portrayed by a bewigged and powdered Judith Christin) is dressed in the style of the late 18th c., revealing just how elderly and old-fashioned she is.
Donizetti tossed off this "trifle" (HA!) in a very short period of time; it had its premiere in 1840 and we are still loving the story and the characters and the music nearly two centuries later. Contemporary composers labor for years over operas that we see once and forget about. What's wrong with this picture?
(c) meche kroop