The black leather jacket and surly exterior that hides a heart of gold: the enigmatic, exciting figure of the Hell’s Angel, the true gentleman of the road, is familiar to us all. Jeff Clarke's marvellous retelling of La Fille du régiment updates Donizetti’s original setting (the Swiss Tyrol in the early 19th century) to the hot, dusty Californian desert of the 1950s, with simple and effective set design (complete with inflatable cacti) by Nigel Howard. Our abandoned baby Marie is found, not by the French army, but by “The Regiment”: a group of Hell’s Angels who really did exist in Doggett, California from 1948 onwards (the beautifully researched programme explains their fascinating foundation and semi-criminal career).

Clarke’s vision brilliantly incorporates all the best aspects of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece: Marie’s extraordinary upbringing (“And when she spits, she spits like ladies do,” Sulpice, one of her many ‘fathers’ confides proudly), the intense paternal adoration the Regiment have for her, and Marie’s passionate commitment to them – which is soon besieged by her nascent passion for the apparently-unsuitable Tonio (here, a Hispanic lover from across the border, instantly reviled by all the Regiment as a “Spic”), and by the social destiny vainly imposed on her by her glamorous socialite aunt (who, naturally enough in opera, turns out to be more than just an aunt). The libretto is a treat in itself, full of period vocabulary and well-observed American dialects: the desperately refined dialogue of the Berkenfields and Crackenthorpes contrasts deliciously with the earthy patois of the bikers, peppered with swear words and occasionally even blows.

Not only has Jeff Clarke translated the opera’s story, libretto, and general sense intact: he also gives us Donizetti’s characters in glorious technicolour. The Regiment are all adorable, acting and singing with gusto, led by Adrian Clarke as Sulpice, their leader, whose sonorous, warm bass is a constant delight. Clarke’s acting is excellent, often providing much of the comedy, and easily commanding our attention in every scene. As Marie bids the Regiment farewell to start her ill-fated new life at the Berkenfield Mansion, Sulpice’s simple, still grief was heartbreaking to behold: the great key to making this opera a success is to keep the emotions as real as possible at all times (despite the farcical scenario), something Clarke wholeheartedly understands, realising that in great absurdity can also lie great and powerful emotion.

In this very physical production, acting is just as important as singing, and just as skilfully executed by Opera Della Luna. Their comprehensive approach is perfectly exemplified by James Harrison as Hortensius, a superbly camp butler: whether polishing oranges in the Mansion, or producing martinis and blinis in the middle of the desert, Hortensius’ singing part may be small, but in repartee and mime Harrison becomes a comic anchor, and unforgettable to boot in Hortensius’ increasingly desperate, OCD perfectionism. His mistress, the redoubtable Marsha Berkenfield, is Katharine Taylor-Jones, who manages to tread a balance between outer fabulousness and inner vulnerability, making Miss Berkenfield both interesting and human (instead of snotty and irritating, as she can sometimes be). Taylor-Jones gets the very best of the excellent costumes Maria Lancashire has produced for all the cast, though Dulcie Crackenthorpe gives Marsha a run for her money in the fashion and stage presence stakes (Crackenthorpe is played for us by “Miss Anne Onimus”, who I think may not be unrelated to the marvellous Philip Cox).

Suzanne Shakespeare is full of enthusiasm and confidence as Marie, giving us a dexterous and exuberant performance. At the higher end of her register, Shakespeare can sometimes be tempted to blast, which can make her sound shrill at times. However, her nicely observed characterisation and warm tones at the lower end of her voice more than make up for those occasional moments of misjudgement in what has to be an extremely tough role to sing. I enjoyed her performance immensely, and we truly believe her tomboyish impatience with her new life, and die-hard commitment to the Regiment: in the notorious Singing Lesson scene, Shakespeare masters her very demanding music with panache. Jesus Alvarez is, meanwhile, nothing short of exquisite as Marie’s lover, Tonio: his soft, bright tenor has a richness and warmth which seems endlessly beautiful, while his Banderas-like Spanish drawl only enhances his performance. I cannot wait to see Alvarez sing again: he brought genuine musicality and feeling to his every aria. Even if the rest of the cast weren’t so strong, the trip to Iford would be worth it for Alvarez alone. 

The Orchestra of Opera Della Luna, conducted with poise and focus by Toby Purser, make a rich, lyrical, engaging sound which fills the cloister. The overture, in particular, was a rousing delight, making the most of all the different military textures Donizetti uses to set his scene. Altogether, for evening of energy, creativity, and genuine originality (as well as wonderful music and glorious singing), Opera Della Luna’s Fille is very hard to beat.