This past weekend, I saw two performances of Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" at Seattle Opera. It was a merry union of former Seattle Young Artists Program singers: soprano Sarah Coburn sang with Lawrence Brownlee on Saturday night and with Andrew Stenson on Sunday afternoon, a Seattle Opera family day. Speight Jenkins spoke before each performance, opening with an announcement that everyone was healthy, and then asking those who had subscribed to all 50 Seattle Opera seasons to stand. The curtain is always held until he takes his seat; on Sunday afternoon it took longer than usual, as he accompanied Sarah Coburn's 4-year-old daughter to their seats.
The production by Emilio Sagi, with sets and costumes by Julio Galan was created for Teatro Communale de Bologna, and has been performed over ten times, with the costs of this intercontinental shipment shared by Seattle and San Diego Operas. It is set in a small village in France in 1945 at the end of WWII, and the regiment is American. According to Jenkins, Seattle Opera invested a lot in upgrading the sets and costumes, including getting the military insignia right. The update makes it more difficult to get the acting and timing right, because the audience expects something more realistic, even with a goofball plot, than something set in another century, and the ensemble cast found a sweet spot. Kudos to Coburn who is onstage for most of the opera.
I'd listened to the 2013 Neue Stimmen competition a few weekends ago, one aria for each semi-finalist and two for each finalist. Since it showcases young, polished professionals -- the gowns were red-carpet worthy and most of the bodies would look at home there, too -- there aren't a lot of deep rich mezzos or big dramatic or Wagnerian sopranos, and had they not gone for some gender diversity -- the standard is one first, second, and third prize for each gender -- I'm sure I would have heard "Una voce poco fa" and Lucia's mad scene even more times than I did. In "La Fille" Coburn had her share of happy, show-offy stuff, but listening to her sing the emotional first act closing aria, I would not have tired of it if half of the finalists had chosen it, even if they could not have spun it so finely and with such delicacy, pathos, and sensitivity to the text, not to mention with some crazy high notes.
Choosing between Lawrence Brownlee and Andrew Stenson should be a false predicament: the best way to enjoy this opera is to hear them both. Brownlee's voice gets richer and richer while maintaining its golden tone, and everything was note-perfect, including the beautiful second act aria in which he declares his love for Marie to the Marquise of Berkenfield, her supposed aunt. Stenson is younger and his voice isn't as big -- this isn't really an issue in McCaw Hall -- but he's a more mature stylist than most singers with a decade on him, and his voice is lovely.
Alexander Hajek made his Seattle Opera debut as Sulpice, a tough role that shifts from comedian to trusted confidant, something that could easily fall flat. With his strong baritone and excellent acting skills, he found the elusive balance. Veteran singer and voice teacher Joyce Castle played the Marquise of Berkenfield. In period productions she'd swish in with the huge dress of an aristocrat, but in this updated production, she wore a practical and somewhat drab (although surely expensive) suit, and while it didn't quite make her a serious character, taking it down a notch made it possible to "hear" her character. The same was true of her elegant velvet dress in the wedding contract signing scene: it's possible to envision Maggie Smith wearing it in "Downton Abbey" had her character lived long enough. It was the Duchess of Krackenthorp who had the big entrance and the huge dress, not surprisingly because the role was played by Peter Kazaras, who did it as straight as a big, tall tenor in two bolts of silk could possibly do.
Kazaras' gifts as an actor and comedian are legendary in Seattle: he gave a presentation during this past summer's Cycle III "Ring" symposium of a minute-by-minute account of what it was like to be Loge, and I don't think any of us stopped laughing for the entire hour. He more than met expectations -- embodying imperiousness, singing the drunk song from "La Perichole" for the guests, and, after the Marquise reconciles Marie and Tonio and dashes the wedding plan, getting happily tipsy in the corner, courtesy of the servants. He could easily have taken over the scene, but like Allen Galli in the Ratmansky "Don Q" PNB presented a few years ago with Tom Skerritt, he pulled it back enough so that he and Castle were in perfect counterpoint.
There were several other roles played wonderfully. The unattributed (silent) actor who played the young Duke and Coburn had a meet-for-the-first-time moment that was right out of Lise and Alain in "La Fille Mal Gardee." Long time chorus member Karl Marx Reyes -- talk about a great name -- has done many small character roles, and here he played the Marquise's loyal factotum Hortensius, desperately trying to keep his boss out of trouble.
This production was a joy, and "La Fille" has some very beautiful music in it aside from "Ah mes amis," especially Marie's end of Act I scene and Tonio's Act II aria.
For those in the Seattle area, it plays Saturday, October 26, Wednesday October 30, and Saturday November 2 with Lawrence Brownlee and Friday, November 1 with Andrew Stenson. For those who are not, this Saturday's (October 26) performance will be broadcast on KING radio/online, starting at 7:30pm PDT, 10:30pm EDT.