10 January 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT (A. Emerson, R. Barbera, S. Nicely, D. Hartmann; Greensboro Opera – 9 January 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Gaetano Donizetti's LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT at Greensboro Opera, 9 January 2015GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): La fille du régimentAshley Emerson (Marie), René Barbera (Tonio), Susan Nicely (la Marquise de Berkenfield), Donald Hartmann (Sulpice), Scott MacLeod (Hortensius), Derek Gracey (un Caporal), Jacob Kato (un Paysan), Linda Carlisle (la Duchesse de Krakenthorp); Jesse Herndon (le Duc de Krakenthorp); Chorus and Orchestra of Greensboro Opera; Joel Revzen, conductor [Directed by David Holley; Lighting by Jeff Neubauer; Greensboro Opera, Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Friday, 9 January 2015]

In the years since her first march upon the stage of Paris’s Opéra-Comique on 11 February 1840, Gaetano Donizetti’s eponymous daughter of the regiment has laid siege to many of the world’s opera houses when her sisters—even the regal ones like Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda—were far shyer. First heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 1902, when—remarkably—it was partnered with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana as a double bill [later performances paired Donizetti’s work with either Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald], La fille du régiment has managed to maintain an ageless attractiveness to audiences that has eluded many gems of bel canto. An element of that allure is surely the thrill of hearing tenors attempt the infamous nonet of top Cs in ‘Pour mon âme,’ but this alone is not sufficient to explain the opera’s endurance. There is something very poignant in the story of Marie, Donizetti’s rugged-as-cannonballs but tender-as-edelweiss vivandière, that resonates with audiences; something, in fact, that may be different for every listener and in every performance. In the hands of Marcella Sembrich and Frieda Hempel, the MET’s early Maries, the opera was a vehicle for joviality expressed in vocal pyrotechnics. For Lily Pons, a daughter her regimental ‘fathers’ might have carried in their pockets, Marie offered an ideal forum for celebrating her innate vivacity and paying homage to her native France. Beverly Sills’s Marie was a good-humored, gun-toting cousin of Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, and Dame Joan Sutherland portrayed an innocent but endearingly mischievous tomboy. Amidst the flurries of top notes (both written and interpolated) and the comic high jinks, it is all too possible to overlook the quality of Donizetti’s score. Set pieces are fewer in La fille du régiment than in the composer’s Italian operas, but the level of melodic distinction is very high. One of the most notable successes of Greensboro Opera’s past was a beautifully-sung production of Lucia di Lammermoor with an eight-months-pregnant Jennifer Welch-Babidge as a stylish and wonderfully moving heroine. The company’s excellence in Donizetti repertory was renewed in this performance of La fille du régiment. It was an evening of laughter and exalted spirits, but there was no doubting that the impediments to the love of this Marie and Tonio were deadly serious. Above all, it was a grand evening for the art of bel canto and a very welcome return to staged performances for Greensboro Opera.

Directed by the company’s Artistic Director David Holley, Greensboro Opera’s production of La fille du régiment was, on the whole, a triumph. Presenting an opéra comique with spoken dialogue in the audience’s vernacular and the musical numbers in the librettists’ original language is a tricky affair, but Greensboro Opera managed alternating the dialogue in La fille du régiment in English with singing in French with aplomb. The lovely Alpine backdrops ably evoked Tonio’s native Tyrol, and the Château de Berkenfield was cleverly represented in Act Two by the gilded traces of a grand house, the backdrops from Act One serving as the vistas visible from the château’s windows. The costumes, especially those for the Marquise and Duchesse, were colorful and delightfully fanciful, and the lighting was simple—and all the better for it. Focus was always on whichever character was singing at any given moment, as it should be. The blocking, too, was effective, though the singers’ movements sometimes placed them so that the auditorium’s strange acoustics made projection difficult. The sense of fun that permeated the production was infectious, and it was fantastic to hear from the audience both waves of laughter and, in moments of dramatic seriousness, attentive silence.

Musically, the performance got off to a shaky start, with a handful of misfires from the wind instruments making the playing of the Ouverture somewhat sloppy. Thereafter, the orchestra’s performance improved markedly, and conductor Joel Revzen mostly maintained dramatic momentum, displaying obvious knowledge and appreciation of the score. The cor anglais obbligato in Marie’s aria ‘Il faut partir,’ played by Hannah Senft, was handsomely and movingly phrased without the line being distorted for saccharine effects. Led by Chorus Master Welborn E. Young, the chorus sang sonorously, launching Act One with a strong account of ‘L'ennemi s'avance.’ The ladies made a good showing in their Prière, ‘Sainte Madone! Douce patronne!’ Impersonating Marie’s regimental fathers, the gentlemen of the chorus enjoyed themselves immensely, thundering out their ‘Allons, allons, march', march', marche à l'instant!’ and ‘Rataplan, rataplan, rataplan’ with glee. Though their regiment was small in numbers, it was large in heart, and their sadness at the loss of Marie in the Act One finale was convincing without seeming silly or overwrought. When they stormed the Château de Berkenfield in Act Two in order to ‘rescue’ Marie from an arranged marriage, the robustness of their singing was imposing. Emerging from the ranks of the chorus, baritones Jacob Kato and Derek Gracey were effective as the Paysan and Caporal, and Jesse Herndon was a suitably unnerved Duc de Krakenthorp, as shocked by the details of his parentage as his mother was by its public revelation.

​​Linda Carlisle brought to her portrayal of the Duchesse de Krakenthorp in the opera’s finale a hearty dose of the deadpan hauteur of the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey. Her entrance was as self-consciously pompous as that of the most glamorous Musetta in Act Two of Puccini’s La bohème, and there was clearly a suggestion of sadistic pleasure in her ultimate repudiation of the House of Berkenfield. This was Ms. Carlisle’s first appearance in opera, and though her voice lacked the richness that her part demands her final exclamation of ‘Scandalous!’ was unanswerably authoritarian. Her Duchesse was less of a harridan than the character often becomes in performance, but hers was the comically magisterial attitude of a grande dame who expected to be both revered and obeyed.

Baritone Scott MacLeod was a joy as Hortensius, the Marquise’s long-suffering servant: indeed, he could have been more charming only if Donizetti had given him more to do. In his Act One entrance with the Marquise, he was atremble with barely-concealed trepidation and a healthy hint of scorn for his employer’s condescension, and his voicing of ‘Allons, madame la marquise, remettez-vous et faites un effort!’ was appealing. Dr. MacLeod’s announcement of the interestingly-named guests at what was intended to be Marie’s wedding was hilarious, and he was a consistently engaging presence in ensembles. His skills as a raconteur were confirmed by his recounting of his unfortunate mistake after being charged with the upbringing of the roving Captain Robert’s children. Only an accomplished singing actor could have so amusingly summarized the sub-plot of La fille du régiment with a single, well-timed ‘Oops!’

Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely was a dramatic force of nature as the Marquise de Berkenfield. She swept into Act One like an avalanche hurtling down one of the distant mountains. Vocally, her work was less consistent. She sang ‘Par l'ennemi se voir ainsi surprise!’ winningly, but the voice sounded far stronger in its lower reaches than at the top of the range in her couplets, ‘Pour une femme de mon nom.’ She whizzed through the difficult triplets with the chorus, however. In Act Two, she was a riot, her euphoria at the notion of a socially-advantageous match for Marie complemented by her unmistakably amorous designs on Sulpice. [The pianist in me was enchanted by her reaction to the plonking wrong notes in her pantomimed accompaniment to Marie’s singing lesson: naturally, these were misprints in her score rather than mistakes!] Ms. Nicely’s best singing of the evening was in the trio with Marie and Sulpice, ‘C'est bon, c'est bon recommençons.’ Throughout the performance, even when her vocalism was imperfect, she legitimately earned her laughs, and she proved a spirited mother for a boisterous daughter.

As Sulpice, UNCG faculty member Donald Hartmann enhanced the very positive impression he made with his singing of the Gamekeeper in North Carolina Opera’s 2014 performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Possessing a ruggedly attractive timbre, the bass-baritone evaded the lure of mindless tomfoolery without shortchanging the comedy of his rôle. In Sulpice’s Act One duet with Marie, ‘La voilà! la voilà! mordieu qu'elle est gentille,’ he interacted with the adopted daughter of his regiment with the awkwardness of a father with a daughter on the brink of womanhood, and his hostility towards Tonio was brusque but born of sincere concern. In his scene with Marie and the Marquise at the start of Act Two, he was the very embodiment of ennui, and his singing of ‘Rataplan, rataplan, rataplan’ in their trio was vividly droll. In the subsequent trio with Marie and Tonio, ‘Tous les trois réunis, quel plaisir, mes amis,’ Dr. Hartmann made easy going of his long-held D at the top of the staff, and his outburst of ‘C'est bien morbleu! j'crois qu'si j'osais’ in the final ensemble was terrific. In terms of militaristic prowess, Dr. Hartmann’s was a Sulpice who may not have been on the fast track for promotion, but he took command of every scene in which he appeared with firm singing and well-judged acting.

Though still in the early years of an international career that promises to take him to all of the world’s foremost opera houses, tenor René Barbera has already established himself as a paragon of bel canto singing. His acclaimed performances in Rossini’s La Cenerentola with Palm Beach Opera and La donna del lago with Santa Fe Opera revealed an emerging artist with a lyric voice of tremendous quality and burgeoning technical flair. Hearing his performance of Donizetti’s music in Greensboro, it seemed only natural that he celebrated his victory in the 2008 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions by singing Tonio’s Act One aria and Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L'elisir d'amore in the finalists’ concert. At Tonio’s entrance in Act One, Mr. Barbera made it clear that being a country boy is not the same as being an unsophisticated yokel. His singing of ‘Je le veux bien!’ sparkled with boyish wonder, and his phrasing of ‘Le beau pays de mon enfance’ in the duet with Marie was poetic, the unison top A♭s produced with ease. It is Tonio’s cavatine ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ that audiences eagerly anticipate in any performance of La fille du régiment, and Mr. Barbera’s singing of it justified the expectations. He rose to the aria’s top B♭ with panache. There was apparent affection in his shaping of ‘Messieurs son père, écoutez-moi, but the real fireworks were reserved for the famed ‘Pour mon âme quel destin,’ in which he sailed through the infamous nine top Cs as comfortably as though he were singing his solfège exercises. This paved the way for a predictably rousing performance of ‘Oh! mes amis je vous en prie,’ but the ringing top D in unison with Marie with which he brought down the curtain on Act One was a fine surprise. The Act Two trio with Marie and Sulpice, ‘Tous les trois réunis, quel plaisir, mes amis,’ drew from Mr. Barbera singing of musical and dramatic acumen, but the pinnacle of his performance was his singing of the gorgeous romance ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ crowned by a superb interpolated top C♯. How is it possible that this piece has so often been omitted from performances of La fille du régiment? In the final ensemble, Mr. Barbera sang ‘Ils viennent la sauver... car on la sacrifice’ with gushing jubilation. Though he rarely sang at dynamic levels quieter than mezzo forte, Mr. Barbera’s tone was unfailingly focused and beautiful, and his was a portrayal of Tonio that would have been a credit to any of the world’s greatest stages.

Part Elly May Clampett, part young Dolly Parton, Ashley Emerson depicted a spitfire Marie who bounded about the stage with unflagging energy. Though she looked as if the recoil from the rifle she brandished would have knocked her over, she gesticulated in the martial manner with gusto. In Marie’s Act One duet with Sulpice, ‘Mon régiment... j'en suis fière vraiment,’ Ms. Emerson sang with zest, but the top B and C in ‘Au bruit de la guerre j'ai reçu le jour​’ proved problematic. She gamely attempted the trills, but the results of her efforts were variable. In the larghetto ‘Un soir, au fond d'un précipice’ and couplets ‘Chacun le sait, chacun le dit,’ she sang securely, but the top C in the marziale, ‘Il a gagné tant de combats,’ was brittle. She gained strength in the duet with Tonio, the top B♭ and unison top A♭ in ‘De cet aveu si tendre’ steady and more potently-projected. The romance ‘Il faut partir mes bons compagnons d'armes’ inspired Ms. Emerson to her finest singing of the night. She sustained the prolonged top A well, and her breath control was admirable. In the Act Two trio with the Marquise and Sulpice, she proved her comedic savoir faire with hysterical antics in her singing lesson. She handled the repeated trills on F♯ and frenzied coloratura in ‘Le jour naissait dans le bocage’ deftly, and the air ‘Par le rang et par l'opulence’ was beautifully sung. The elation of her ‘Salut à la France!’ was rather muted, but her happiness and relief in the trio with Tonio and Sulpice, ‘Tou les trois réunis, quel plaisir, mes amis,’ were palpable. ‘Mais, ô ciel! quel bruit et quel éclat!’ and ‘Quand le destin, au milieu de la guerre’ in the final ensemble challenged her technique, but she coped admirably, and the reprise of ‘Salut à la France!’ was appropriately exuberant. At this point in her career, which has already taken her to the Metropolitan Opera for a number of performances, Marie does not seem to be Ms. Emerson’s natural vocal territory, but she possesses a lyric voice of considerable quality. Still, she faced the challenges of Donizetti’s music courageously, and she created an adorable character who had the audience in the palms of her hands from start to finish.

The assertion, attributed to Enrico Caruso, that a successful performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore requires the participation of the four greatest singers in the world might also be applied to several of Donizetti’s scores. If the musical demands of La fille du régiment as a whole are more modest, the rôles of Marie and Tonio are two of the most daunting in the bel canto repertory. A poor Marie or Tonio can ruin a performance of La fille du régiment, but it is truly an ensemble piece. Greensboro Opera’s production assembled an ensemble of artists who seemed to genuinely enjoy working with one another. More importantly, they seemed to honestly enjoy bringing Donizetti’s score to life. Musical perfection is swell, but the occasionally flawed joie de vivre that coursed through Greensboro Opera’s performance was so much better; but, years from now, will our children and grandchildren believe us when we tell them that we heard René Barbera’s Tonio in Greensboro in 2015?