The circumstances that led Donizetti to write a French romantic comedy were, ironically, less than joyous. His wife Virginia died in 1837 and the broken-hearted composer fled Italy for Paris where, as historian Herbert Weinstock notes, “he began a new life”. Originally written as a quick replacement for a delayed opera by another composer, Daughter was initially greeted with indifference by the Parisian public and hostility by Berlioz (then music critic for the Journal des débats). Audiences quickly came around, however, and over the years the title role has become a favorite of high-flying sopranos from Jenny Lind to Joan Sutherland.
The titular daughter, Marie, is a war orphan adopted as a baby by the rather tender-hearted French soldiers of the 21st Regiment. Now a beauty with the voice of an angel and a colorful military vocabulary, she loves and is loved by Tonio, who saved her from toppling off an Alp. Their love is opposed initially by her guardian, Sergeant Sulpice, and the other soldiers (who mistake Tonio for a spy) and then by the snobbish Marquise de Birkenfeld, who is determined to marry Marie off to the son of the pompous Duchess of Crackentorp and who also, in a classic comic opera revelation, turns out to be Marie’s long-lost mother. All ends happily, of course, with plenty of rousing ensembles and solo vocal fireworks along the way.
Although a former Gerdine Young Artist and therefore still in the early stages of her career, soprano Ashley Emerson, as Marie, has an understanding of comic acting (both physical and vocal) and a light, nimble voice that would do credit to a more experienced singer. Petite and energetic, her Marie is perhaps the very embodiment of the adjective “feisty”. She is sometimes overpowered by her male co-stars, but her performance is so completely right that I, at least, am willing to cut her a lot of slack in the volume department. Besides, coloratura and comedy are difficult enough individually; in combination they can be a major challenge.
As Tonio, tenor René Barbera is not, perhaps, the strongest actor on the stage, but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the strongest singers. His voice is clear, powerful, and, as far as I can tell, pretty much seamless throughout the wide range called for in the role. Besides, this is a part that is mostly about singing beautifully and accurately hitting those high Cs in the bravura air “Pour mon âme” – a song reckoned to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire. Mr. Barbera’s performance on opening night brought on a spontaneous ovation and cries of “bravo” that were well deserved.
Baritone Dale Travis completes the strong leading trio in the buffo role of Sulpice. A big actor with an equally large voice, his mere presence on the stage with the diminutive Ms. Emerson can’t help but provoke a smile in the best “Mutt and Jeff” tradition, and his gruff-but-lovable performance is just perfect.
Mezzo Dorothy Byrne is the self-consciously upper-crust Marquise. It’s normally a contralto role and didn’t seem to be the best fit for her voice, but she certainly made the most of her one and only solo. As the Marquise’s snooty servant Hortensius, bass-baritone Jason Eck is appropriately fussy and the two work well together on stage.
Given that director Seán Curran is also a choreographer, you might expect more than the usual amount of scripted movement and dance, and you’d be right. There is even a small corps de ballet which is so neatly integrated with the singing cast that the overall effect is more like a Broadway musical in which everyone sings and dances to some degree. The women of the corps have a particularly funny bit with Ms. Emerson at the opening of the second act as Marie tries (and hilariously fails) to execute classic choreography (think Swan Lake or Les Sylphides with Carol Burnett’s Princess Winifred thrown in).
In his director’s notes, in fact, Mr. Curran acknowledges that his chief source of inspiration for this production is Broadway stage – especially “tomboy” shows such as Annie Get Your Gun, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Once Upon a Mattress. There is, as a result, a fair amount of knockabout farce to supplement all the dancing. Personally, I found much of it a bit too broad – with comedy, less is usually more, in my view – but the music and libretto easily support it and the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it immensely.
This production of Daughter of the Regiment incorporates another element of the Broadway stage, at least as it existed in the early 20th century: the show-stopping star turn. The role of the Duchess of Crackentorp is normally a spoken part, which has often, in recent years, been taken by retired or semi-retired singers with high name recognition. Casting noted soprano Sylvia McNair in the role falls right in with that tradition. Giving her an interpolated song and accompanying it with a fair amount of extra gag lines, however, is straight out of 1920s Broadway.
The added song – “A Word On My Ear” by the great British comic songwriters Flanders and Swann – is a hilarious send-up of tin-eared (but LOUD) singers in the Jonathan and Darlene Edwards vein. As with much of the rest of the evening’s comic business, I found it a bit overplayed, but the audience loved it and seemed perfectly content to let the entire show come to a halt while Ms. McNair did her bit.
Down in the pit, St. Louis native John McDaniel – a gent with an impressive Broadway and cabaret resume of his own – leads a polished performance of the score, played with the usual professionalism by musicians from the St. Louis Symphony. Chorus Master R. Robert Ainsley and English Diction Specialist Erie Mills have done their usual fine job of keeping everything crisp and comprehensible.
Set and costume designer James Schuette has given the whole production a bright, comic book look, complete with a whimsical fleur-de-lis–inspired false proscenium and imitation footlights in the shape of drums. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting nicely compliments it all and does a find job of signaling the applause points.
This is, in short, a solid production of a lively and tuneful score by one of the masters of bel canto. If you love comic opera and like your humor broad, you can hardly go wrong with this Daughter of the Regiment. It is, as they say, “family friendly”, and as an introduction to opera for those who might otherwise find the genre intimidating it’s hard to beat.
Performances of Daughter of the Regiment continue at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus through June 26th. For more information, you may visit experienceopera.org or call 314-961-0644.