Seattle Opera kicked off its 50th season with Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. It seemed like a strange choice to me, because, well, it is not the best opera. In fact, it almost doesn’t seem like opera. It reminded me more of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance than a comedic bel canto like Così fan tutte.
Although there is some beautiful music and technical singing in La fille, the arias lack powerful, memorable melodies. Some parts are spoken instead of sung while other parts foreshadow Gilbert & Sullivan’s patter songs. It’s not uncommon for opera plots to be tissue-thin, but few operas have as little pretense to substance as the shamelessly silly La fille du régiment. Perhaps after the rigors of producing The Ring this summer, the company was due for something light and fun. Daughter of the Regiment certainly fits that bill.
In a passage from one of Louisa May Alcott’s books (I think it was Under the Lilacs) a young girl describes the opera. She says the elegant atmosphere creates a veneer of respectability for stories that most people would be ashamed to hear unadorned. Then I took it for typical Alcott prudishness. Now I think she was referring to Daughter of the Regiment.
After all, the very premise of a young girl expected to marry from among a group of collective fathers is eyebrow-raising. Until recently in America, the circumstances of Marie’s birth, revealed in the second act, could only have been spoken in whispers or sung in French. Seattle Opera has made a few humorous additions to the original that would probably have appalled Alcott as much as the original. At least, I assume that the potential mother in law cast in drag and singing about being drunk is a modern addition. (According to the booklet, the drinking song was by Offenbach, who also wrote Tales of Hoffman which will be performed later in the season – a witty touch.)And I am certain the Baroness of Humptulips and Comtesse of Sequim are unique to this production.
As Marie tries to learn the fashionable parlor songs that will make her acceptable to high society, she keeps backsliding (egged on by one of her regimental fathers) into military songs. Each time, the silent servant in the background stops working and starts dancing flamboyantly. He and the maid also routinely help themselves to the wine on their serving trays. These are small touches, but I absolutely love that Seattle Opera has enough confidence in its singers to place these potentially scene-stealing visual gags on the stage amidst the primary action of the story.
I think a lot of people don’t give opera a chance because they expect motionless singers stationed at center stage in some sort of marathon high school recital. Maybe some opera companies really do productions like that. But I know Seattle Opera’s gorgeous sets and dynamic staging make for a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience, even when the material is a little weak.
In La fille, tenor Lawrence Brownlee sings his way through an offstage bicycle crash before limping into a beautifully sung love scene. As Tonio he conveys as much character and humor in his movements as his songs. Sarah Coburn as Marie climbs on and off of a tavern bar without missing a beat. When Joyce Castle sings, the audience can hear the stuffy snobbery of the Marquise without reading the supertitles.
Seattle Opera never loses its focus on the music; even their drag queen – okay, drag duchess – is actually Peter Kazaras, director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program. Brownlee, Coburn, and Andrew Stenson, who will sing Tonio for two nights, all received training through this program. For all its weaknesses, La fille du régiment is a good vehicle for these artists. For example, it provides the tenor an aria with nine high Cs in the first act; his aria in Act Two is a perfect emotional counterpoint to Act One’s technicality.
In an art form where subscribers under age 40 qualify for a youth discount, the choice to open Seattle Opera’s 50th season with a showcases for the talent of its future stars may be the most exciting thing about this production.