Atlanta Opera's The Daughter of the Regiment opened on Saturday at the Cobb Energy Centre. This high-octane production – one of three opera openings this weekend within a two-hour drive of Chattanooga (the others are Knoxville Opera’s Turandot and the University of Georgia’s Marriage of Figaro) – is played for laughs and hits lots of high notes.
Lots of high notes is not an exaggeration. Singing the role of Tonio in The Daughter of the Regiment (original French title: La fille du regiment) made the young Luciano Pavarotti a star, with an aria in which the young lad celebrates a reciprocation of love by hitting 9 high Cs. Atlanta Opera’s Tonio is Santiago Ballerini, who has been making quite the name for himself as a singer of classic bel canto tenor roles. Ballerini brings great energy, enthusiasm, and shtick to his portrayal.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sets and pushes much of the campy mood as the Marquise, beginning with her first scene and continuing to the end. The entire production has a stylized feel reminiscent of opera parodies in classic Warner Brothers cartoons; Blythe luxuriates in this, milking what could be throwaway lines for great humor. She also shows a wonderful grasp of the acoustic, with a diction that cuts through the large hall in spoken and sung lines.
The titular daughter of the regiment, Marie, is played by soprano Andriana Chuchman. In this version of the opera, Chuchman’s Marie is very much the lower-class tomboy, with a lot of physical comedy during the spoken dialogue that helps keep the general jovial mood of the evening flowing. Chuchman excels in aria after aria, from the vibrant “Chacun le sait” ("Everyone knows it") to the moving “Il faut partir mes bons compagnons d'armes” (“I must leave my good companions in arms”). Almost every scene when Chuchman appears with Stefano de Peppo’s Sulpice is comedy gold.
The backdrop for the opera includes two splendid visual tableaus in oval: a mountain scene in Act I, and a sea of blue trimmed by double curving staircases in Act II, rendered by scenic designer James Noone. The visual aesthetic is pretty but inconsistent, which leads to an issue more apparent when looking at the costumes by James Schuette: it’s not very clear what era this opera is supposed to be set in. The cut of many of the costumes suggests that we are somewhere in the Regency/Empire period, while the suits, onstage piano, and Act II set are more strongly stamped as the Second Empire period. This lack of clarity is amplified by the rewritten dialogue dropping most of the references to events that might sort out the chronology.
Although the audience did not seem to mind, the supertitles often left large portions of songs untranslated and dropped key connections in the lyrics. (One of the most omissions all but eliminates the wedding party guests’ horror at Marie being a vivandière – a type of camp follower often associated with prostitution – with some generic wording about her being from the regiment.) Given the amount of physical comedy tied to the lyrics, having more accurate – and more present – supertitles would have amplified the effusive humor.
It is always difficult to tell where a stage director’s work ends and a choreographer’s work begins, especially in a well-known opera. Whatever the balance of credit due, stage director E. Loren Meeker and choreographer Meg Gillentine have created an opera with little extraneous movement, where everything has its purpose and the purpose is usually comedic. The group numbers are special highlight, and the Act II trio "Tous les trois reunis" (“All three of us reunited”) is a number to remember just as much for Donizetti’s brilliant music as the popping physical comedy that accompanies it. The end of the opera is a bit abrupt, but at just about two hours total, who’s complaining?
The Daughter of the Regiment continues at the Cobb Energy Centre in Atlanta through March 4.
Basil Considine, PhD