Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Daughter of the Regiment’: A high C comic hit

Delightful leads, updated comedy routines transform Donizetti's light comic classic into a charming operetta with appeal for all.

Anna Christy
A transformed Marie (Anne Christy) and her regimental pals in search of a happy ending in Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment" at SFO. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, courtesy Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE, New Mexico, August 9, 2015 — Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 mostly period-centric version of Donizetti’s comic opera, “Daughter of the Regiment” (“La fille du regiment”) might not be the traditional opera goer’s cup of tea. But that said, this production — currently on stage in Santa Fe — wraps the infinite delights of the composer’s witty score around enough updated vaudeville shtick to make this opera into an accessible delight for all.

Donizetti’s simple plot rides on that long-favored comic-opera device of mistaken identity. In this case, we learn that spunky young Marie (soprano Anna Christy) was discovered as an abandoned infant a number of years ago near a battlefield. They adopted Marie and carried her along with them as something of a mascot, becoming her virtual “fathers” along the way, chief of whom is her doting senior “dad,” Sulpice (bass Kevin Burdette).

Now, she actually works with them in what was then actually a traditional role, doling out food, drink and provisions, even as she becomes one of the boys.

But problems arise when, on a Napoleonic mission of conquest, the regiment stumbles upon a border village where all is not as it seems. Maria falls in love with a local fellow named Tonio (tenor Alek Shrader), while simultaneously discovering she was actually born to nobility. She’s promptly scooped up by her supposed aunt, the Marquise of Berkenfeld (mezzo-soprano Phyllis Panchella) who promptly tries to do the Pygmalion thing and turn the rowdy Marie into a lady and marry her off to another noble.

All this is enough to set off comic pandemonium and plenty of good solo and ensemble opportunities as well, making for a funny and enjoyable evening.

But as an extra-added attraction, fans of traditional “Daughter” productions will be surprised to see that some spoken dialogue has been added back in to this production, updated with a few 21st century allusions to boot — understandable since 19th century jokes would likely fall flat in 2015.

The result is a production that feels like a cross between vaudeville and Broadway, even though it’s still dressed up in a traditional 19th century look and feel.

While the approach is a bit startling, we found it rather refreshing, an effect heightened by some terrific, spot-on singing by both the principals and the chorus, the latter of which has been splendid throughout this season’s productions.

Diminutive coloratura soprano Anna Christy is both effective and believable as young Marie, swaggering around as any young man or woman would if raised by a regiment of hearty soldiers. She hits Donizetti’s numerous stratospheric high notes cleanly and effortlessly, and her comic timing is superb.

Likewise, the two men in her life — her “father” Sulpice and her ardent boyfriend Tonio, portrayed by Kevin Burdette and Alek Shrader respectively — also have athletic voices and an excellent comic touch.

As Sulpice, Mr. Burdette possesses a supple, light bass instrument that wraps perfectly around this opera’s light solo moments. He’s also not afraid to portray his character with hallmark vaudeville-style struts and double takes, whose exaggerated character reminds one of John Cleese in his Monty Python days.

He’s the perfect foil for the comically earnest Tonio, as portrayed by Mr. Shrader. Initially awkward and gawky, Mr. Shrader’s Tonio develops into a shrewd, canny fellow, all the better to evade the soldiers’ defensive line and the Marquise’s scheming to get his girl in the end.

Of course, Mr. Shrader must face as well his famous 9 high-C aria (“Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!”). This he accomplished with aplomb during the performance we attended, hitting each attempt cleanly and earning the admiration of the audience in the process. Indeed, his portrayal of Tonio was among the sprightliest and most enlightened we’ve seen to date.

And we mustn’t forget Phyllis Panchella’s intriguing portrayal of the stuffy Marquise of Berkenfeld, the woman with a special secret. Her vocal excursions are both amusing and well sung.

But better still, she portrays her character as a somewhat younger, feistier woman, quite different from the usual portrayals of the Marquise, which generally picture her as a cranky, outdated and unimaginative spinster. This actually gives the opera a truer look and feel, and gives the current production a considerable lift and lightness of tone.

The key singers are ably backed by SFO’s spendid cast and orchestra under the able baton of Speranza Scappucci. And the proceedings are considerably enhanced by Allen Moyer’s colorful costuming and marvelously flexible sets, including his inspired first act collage of stacked blocks, furniture and assorted detritus, reminiscent of those classic French-style road blockades that are even today part and parcel of French student demonstrations.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Four performances of “Daughter of the Regiment” remain. For tickets and information, visit the Santa Fe Opera website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17