Napoleonic Tomfoolery

Getting regimented at the Opera

Welcome, friends, to Cloud-cuckoo Land. No, stop. That's that dead Greek guy. Um—Never-never Land? Uh-uh. The late Mr. Barrie dreamed that one up. How about Topsy-turvey-dom? Getting warmer, but no cigar. That would be Gilbert and Sullivan. But we're closing in, moving back a few years from G&S to the silly and sad and serio-comical bel canto domain of Gaetano Donizetti.

It's from this that the Santa Fe Opera has at long last plucked the third of Donizetti's evergreen trilogy of comic operas: The Elixir of Love arrived here in 1968 and 2009, Don Pasquale in 1983 and 2014, and now finally, after 58 seasons of strange neglect, a brouhaha-packed production of The Daughter of the Regiment that opened last Friday night. Being precise, Daughter's not exactly a comic opera, per se. Call her what she truly is: une opéra comique.

So what's in a mere Gallic translation? Plenty, as it turns out. All of Donizetti's operas before 1838 had been produced, with one exception, for Italian theaters and for Italian audiences, largely Neapolitan. Troubles with censors and royalty, in addition to headaches with management, came with that territory, coupled with the relatively limited expectations of relatively unsophisticated audiences. But Donizetti's reputation grew and grew. Finally, the magic moment arrived. Paris called. And in the fall of 1838, the 41-year-old composer packed his bags.

While not quite yet la ville lumière, Paris saw itself as—and really was—the cultural capital of Europe: worldly, chic, elegant and overflowing with knowing audiences and sharp-tongued critics. Donizetti got busy. Before the 1840 premiere of La fille du régiment and after his arrival, he had already composed, revised or worked seriously on five operas for Paris. After La fille (his 55th!) opened at the Opéra-Comique, a green-eyed Berlioz famously huffed, "One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti."

Stylistically, The Daughter of the Regiment, as it shall be henceforth designated, isn't all that easy to classify. Although the overture rollicks along with melodies from the opera, it opens with a melancholy solo for horn. The first scene, an anxious chorus of Tyrolean villagers expecting an invasion by the French army, could easily preface tragedy. Broad comedy alternates with heart-wringing lyrical sentiment, with ensuing emotional/musical contrasts that seem practically bipolar. To wit: the frantic second act singing-lesson scene that reiterates all the boisterous trumpet-and-drum vive la France regimental music permeating the score.

But back to July 3 at the Crosby Theatre, where SFO's frisky, exuberant Daughter nailed the spirit of the original, stole the hearts of its audience and made us wonder: Darlin' daughter Marie—where you been? First of all, let's hear it for Speranza Scappucci, only the third woman to conduct here. She joined the music staff back in 2004 and has been making an impression in Italy and in this country ever since. Sourpuss Richard Wagner likened Donizetti's orchestra to a "big guitar." Not with Scappucci in charge. Nuance, flavor, energy, drive: They're all just part of the package.

Soprano Anna Christy, that titular Marie, racked up charm to spare four years ago here in Menotti's creampuff, The Last Savage. The voice has grown and matured since, with all those confident coloratura licks firmly in place. Christy's sustained legato? Pure heaven. Her anguished aria, Il faut partir, bel canto singing non plus ultra with fine English horn obbligato by James Button, made my evening.

SFO General Director Charles MacKay calls tenor Alek Shrader, Christy's Tyrolean beau Tonio, a "stage animal." When he's on, he's ON, and there's nowhere else to look. Shrader's trademark aria, Pour mon âme, with those notorious nine high C's, had been a winner at the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Since then, the voice has darkened, with a less juicy top range. His tender plea for Marie's hand, Pour me rapprocher, fared better.

As Sulpice, hyper-moustachioed sergeant-major of the redoubtable 21st Regiment, baritone Kevin Burdette provided his customarily adroit vocal and super-adroit physical comedy skills. During that delicate Tyrolean tune prefacing Act 2, he's asked to pantomime an extended silent-comedy schtick. Time passes.

Phyllis Pancella embodies the delectably snobbish Marquise of Berkenfeld, with Calvin Griffin as her supercilious steward, Hortensius. And triply welcome back to you, adored veteran of so many shows, Judith Christin. Your vast, billowy Duchess of Krakenthorp belongs in the annals.

This Daughter sings in French but speaks perfectly good English in director Ned Canty's amusing dialogue. His witty, animated staging seems borrowed at times from D'Oyly Carte's well-loved productions of G&S, a very good and appropriate thing indeed. As are Allen Moyer's generally eye-pleasing costumery and scenery. Act 1 vividly depicts a ramshackle Tyrolean anti-French barricade in violent contrast to the second act's piss-elegant, neo-classical Berkenfeld hunting lodge. And not to forget: Susanne Sheston has worked her customary magic with the brilliantly comic and agile chorus of apprentice artists.

A personal note for SFO old-timers: In an illustrious 1972 Met production of Daughter, Joan Sutherland proved a droll, towering Marie. Luciano Pavarotti made a sensational breakthrough, trumpeting those high C's. But the point for us ancient locals lies in the cast for the on-tour-in-Atlanta show I caught. The Duchess of Krakenthorp? Our own wonderful Jean Kraft. The Sulpice? Our own beloved, inimitable Donald Gramm.

The Daughter of the Regiment
8:30 pm, July 8, 11, 17 & 24;
8 pm, Aug. 3, 8, 12, 20, 26 & 29, $80-$198
Santa Fe Opera House
301 Opera Drive,

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