|Erica Cochran as Marie|
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, La fille 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, 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 still in the early stages of her career, soprano Erica Cochran, as Marie, shows a mastery of comic timing and a light, nimble voice that would do credit to a more experienced singer. Coloratura and comedy are difficult enough individually; in combination they can be a major challenge, but Ms. Cochran excels at both.
Tenor Gregory Schmidt looks, to my eyes, a bit too mature for the role of Tonio, but once he begins to sing all other considerations become secondary. History tells us that the original 1840 Tonio, Mécène Marié de l'Isle, had pitch problems. Had Mr. Schmidt lived back then history would have a different story to tell. His instrument is clear, accurate, and seamless throughout the role’s rather high tessitura. Opera audience love to hear a tenor bounce high Cs off the back wall and Mr. Schmidt has a head voice that can do just that. The opening night audience couldn’t get enough of it, applauding with gusto after his bravura air “Pour mon âme”— a song reckoned to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire.
Baritone David Dillard sings the buffo role of Sulpice with appropriate comic gusto and blends nicely with Ms. Cochran and Mr. Schmidt in their trios (“Tous les trios réunis” being the outstanding example). Contralto Dixie Roberts is also impeccably funny as the self-consciously upper crust Marquise and while she only gets one really solid air to herself - “Pour une femme d mon nom” in the first scene - she delivers it in fine style. Director Jolly Stewart has a nice comic cameo turn in the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp and E. Scott Levin displays his substantial comic skills as the harassed butler Hortensius.
There’s no chorus master listed, so I’m not sure whom to congratulate for the fine sound of the ensemble. I can say that conductor Kostis Protopapas does a nice job with the reduced orchestra in what has always seemed to me to be a rather challenging acoustic environment. Director Stewart has, to my taste, given a bit too much stage business to her performers—comedy doesn’t necessarily require that the actors be in constant movement—but most of it works well enough.
There were some intonation issues and lighting problems on opening night and not all the ensemble members seemed equally invested in their roles, but those are minor complaints. The bottom line is that Union Avenue Opera’s La fille du régiment is a solid production of a lively and tuneful score by one of the masters of bel canto. You couldn’t ask for a better break from the oppressive heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer. Note that if you don't arrive on time to park in the church's small lot, the Metro Psychiatric Hospital next door allows audience members to park there as well.
It has been said, by the way, that interest in La fille du régiment tends to rise during wartime, given the libretto’s enthusiastic embrace of all things military. As someone who has lived in a world perpetually at war his entire life, I’m not wholly convinced of that correlation. To me, the backdrop of protracted conflict had rather the opposite effect, casting emotional shadows that were probably not part of the intention of authors Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it seem to me that (to liberally paraphrase Milton) darkness need not be visible to discover regions of sorrow where peace and rest can never dwell.
Performances of La fille du régiment continue through August 8th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information, you may call 314-361-2881 or visit the web site at unionavenueopera.org. The opera is sung in French with projected English supertitles easily visible from nearly all of the house.