Chicks dig the high notes. The enduring popularity of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment seems to indicate as much. The plot is silly (even by opera’s standards) and much of the music is not as memorable as some of Donizetti’s more popular works. Yet even without the notorious Ah! mes amis and its nine high C’s, the charming work can be a crowd-pleaser as evidenced by San Diego Opera’s season opening performance Saturday evening.
The luxurious cast, led by veteran conductor Yves Abel, performed with obvious ease, which was particularly impressive given the intricate deportment they were given by stage director Emilio Sagi. While the audience awaited Tonio’s aria with baited breath, famed contralto Ewa Podleś set the pace for the evening with her melodramatic entrance as the Marquise de Birkenfeld. Podleś made ample use of her unparalleled range, parlaying her burly chest voice for comical effect, and displayed an innate sense of theatrical timing when she played to the audience with physical and vocal gags that were well received. Her spoken confession to Sulpice in Act II was a moment of respite from the over-the-top frivolity of the rest of the production and was effectively moving.
American tenor Stephen Costello, taking on the role of Tonio for the first time, sang with an undeniably potent instrument. The shining squillo in his voice was exciting and gave the character a believable ardor, but he tended to lean on his voice with too much heft when leading through the passaggio, which affected the intonation and color. While he had a tendency to slide into his high notes, there was no such issue during Ah! mes amis. The high C’s were perfectly attacked and they carried with plenty of body in the large auditorium. His voice is undeniably exciting, and his good looks and clever stage deportment make him a polished tenor with huge potential.
The Marie of soprano L’ubica Vargicová was too refined to be completely believable, but sung with a powerful and youthful voice. While Vargicová’s voice is somewhat unfocused resulting in a bit of a flutter, her high notes are thrilling. She was most at ease in Marie’s two arias Il faut partir, and Par le rang et l'opulence in which she spun beautiful lines with subtlety and plenty of lyric color. Despite her stature, the steely size of her voice is impressive as she sailed through the ensemble pieces with a charming presence.
Kevin Burdette’s Sergeant Suplice earned plenty of laughs, but is due credit for a beautiful, light bass voice that is rich in color and secure throughout the range. His natural demeanor on stage was a bonus as he was light on his feet but firm in his physical authority. Baritone Macolm MacKenzie was a fine dupe of a servant to the Marquis, performing with a stuffy air of endearing detachment. Soprano Carol Vaness was a delightful addition to the cast as the menacing Duchess. Always glamorous, her too-few phrases of Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix were a highlight.
Orchestra and chorus were both outstanding. The chorus sang with an impressive clarity of diction and managed to make a corporeal sound without over-singing. The orchestra played with restraint and Maestro Abel led a nuanced reading of the score. He was a sensitive collaborator, never overpowering the singers onstage.
The production, originally from the Teatro Comunale Di Bologna, updates the action to World War II; the regiment is American. Director Emilio Sagi gives the singers plenty to do and while at times the action can be too busy (particularly in the slapstick beginning of Act II), it is usually in service of the drama. He would often call for an entrance during the da capo of an aria which helped move the action along. It is a very attractive production with sharp costumes and sets that are functional as well as believable.
Overall, the entire affair came together quite nicely. Transitions were seamless and the action moved tightly onstage. It made the entire piece feel spontaneous and fresh. Much to the audience’s delight, several patrons from areas around San Diego were announced as wedding guests during the final act. It was a nice addition to an already endearing production. The uniformly excellent cast and clever concept helped keep Donizetti’s tenor vehicle enjoyable and is worth seeing for more than the high C’s.