Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Whoa, don't get the wrong idea. This is not the plot of Mamma Mia! gone wild. The opera is set in the early 19th century in the Tyrolean Alps, where Marie was left on the stoop of a remote cottage as an infant, with a note asking the finder to take her in as their own. Well, she was found by an entire regiment of French soldiers who collectively raised her as their daughter. Of the regiment, though, it is Sergeant Sulpice, who first spied the babe in her basket, and he functions as the "lead" dad, if you will. Apparently, at that time, an entire regiment served together for decades without losing men or bringing on fresh recruits, so Marie has been nurtured and protected by this same gang of men all of her life, and they all take pride in considering her their daughter.
Marie has grown to be a kind, lovely young woman, but raised in the army, she is a rough and tumble canteen girl. Removed from the company of other girls or women, she is every bit the tomboy, without a trace of feminine wiles. She experiences her first pang of womanhood when a handsome young man named Tonio catches her as she slips off a ledge. It is love at first sight. The regimental dads oppose Tonio, as he is of enemy birth, but Marie and Tonio make a persuasive case (with a boost from Donizetti's passionate score) for the authority of love over all else.
However, a noblewoman, La Marquise de Birkenfeld, travelling through the region learns about the canteen girl Marie. She reveals that her sister abandoned a baby in just this place twenty years before–Marie is her niece! Once the family tie is proven, the Marquise declares she will bring Marie to her castle to train in the arts of feminine gentility, and find a suitable husband of noble birth. Marie and Tonio are devastated. At her castle, the Marquise's efforts to instruct Marie are going very badly, and the pressure is on as the Marquise has arranged a match between Marie and the princely son of La Duchesse de Krakenthorp, the highest ranked nobility in the district. To no one's surprise, we haven't seen the last of Tonio, Sulpice and the rest of the regiment and, miracle of miracles, it all ends happily.
Donizetti's score is a treasure trove, with spellbinding arias for each of the lovers, as well as a rhapsodic duet. Among these, Tonio's aria in Act Two, "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!," is a well-established crowd pleaser, powerful enough to break the Marquise's resolve and move her to grant Marie's hand to Tonio. A joyful trio celebrating the reunion of Sulpice, Marie and Tonio–"Tous les trois réunis"–is another favorite. Jaunty marching and melodies are given to the men of the regiment, bringing vigor that strikes a balance with the romanticism of the arias and duets, and the regiment's anthem, "Chacun le sait, chacun le dit," is a comic delight. There is very little recitative and more spoken text between musical pieces than is customary in opera, as if Donizetti anticipated the emergence of operetta several decades later
Maestra Kelly Kuo conducts the stellar Minnesota Opera Orchestra, fifty members strong, in a stirring presentation of the score, not only accompanying the soaring vocals, but providing an aural environment, from the blare of cannon fire echoing in the hills to the gentle twitter of early morning birds. The stage direction by John de los Santos mines the comedy inherent in the work, with wonderfully staged bumbling among the soldiers and clowning by Marie as she displays her tomboy nature, even in the midst of a ballet lesson. De los Santos also choreographed, creating a lovely bit for the other ballet students whose grace is pitted against Marie's awkwardness, along with dance sequences for the men of the regiment, the townspeople celebrating the departure of French forces early on, and the guests at the would-be wedding of Marie and her high-born groom.
Vanessa Becerra is a treasure as Marie, her soprano beautifully delivering her many solos, and her comedic flare and physicality perfectly suited to the tone of this work. David Portillo, as Tonio, brings a magnificent tenor to his arias, drawing cheers from the audience every time, and his fresh-faced presence brings out the innocence and earnestness of his love for Marie, a love that far outweighs any loyalty to nationality. The two sound glorious in their duets together. Andrew Wilkowske, a Minnesota Opera Resident Artist alum, is terrific as Sulpice, stalwart in his command post but able to be playful and sympathetic with Marie, and his bass gorgeously delivers his musical assignments.
La Marquise de Birkenfeld is played by Margaret Gawrysiak, bringing out the character's self-absorbed nature and skillfully presenting the musical segments with a distinct contralto. The role of her steward, Hortensius, is performed by Jeremiah Sanders, a current Minnesota Opera Resident artist, does well with the humor embedded in this put-upon character through his stirring bass voice and physical bearing.
La Duchesse de Krakenthorp was intended by Donizetti to be a non-singing role, and often a well-known personage is cast here, allowing for a sparkling cameo performance. This production certainly goes with the sparkle, casting writer, singer, producer, and drag queen Monét X Change, a double-crown winner on "RuPaul's Drag Race," as La Duchesse. Because Monét X Change does have an operatic voice, an aria was inserted for the character, taking a detour from the standard libretto but earning a great ovation from the appreciative audience. (For what it's worth, this is the second production in the Twin Cities in less than a month to feature a veteran of "RuPaul's Drag Race" in the cast, following the national tour of Hairspray with Andrew Leavitt as Edna Turnblad.)
La Duchesse is also given a unique costume treatment by Trevor Bowen, taking its cue from the overall esthetic of the piece–Zach Brown's and Timm Burrow's exaggeratedly ornate mid-19th century central Europe, with somewhat comical uniforms based on the tri-color French flag for the regiment–but ratcheted up to a high camp level. Boyd Ostroff designed the effective set, with a soaring mountain backdrop in muted colors, as if light is filtered through the abundant leaves, for Act One, and the gilded interior of the Marquise's castle in Act II. Lighting by Chad R. Jung further establishes the sifting tones within these two environments and draws attention to particular characters and actions.
The Daughter of the Regiment is an easy opera to enjoy, perhaps even by those who don't think they like opera, with its grand comedic flourishes, served with a melodic yet often playful, score. This production makes all the right choices, starting with casting Vanessa Becerra, David Portillo, and Andrew Wilkowske in the three largest roles. All three artists are superb. The musical conduction, staging and choreography, and design team do this work proud, and moreover, conspire to create an atmosphere of fun from the first note played to the drop of the final curtain.
The Daughter of the Regiment runs through February 12, 2023, by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $287.00. Youth tickets (age 20 and below) available at Patron Services, $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold tickets 90 minutes before performance time are half price; Youth Rush tickets (age 20 and below) are $10.00. A $3.00 facility fee is added to all tickets. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Gaetano Donizetti; Libretto: Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-Francois Bayard; Conductor: Kelly Kuo; Stage Director and Choreographer: John De Los Santos; Scenic Design: Boyd Ostroff; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Additional Costume Design: Timm Burrow; La Duchesse de Krakenthorp Costume Design: Trevor Bowen, Lighting Design: Chad R. Jung; Hair and Make-Up Design: Priscilla Bruce and Emma Gustafson; Intimacy and Fight Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Head of Music and Assistant Conductor: Mario Antonio Marra; Principal Coach and Chorus Director: Celeste Marie Johnson; Répétiteur: Erica Guo; French Diction Coaches: Marie-France LeFebvre and Elsa Quéron; Assistant Stage Director: Margaret Jumonville; Production Stage Manager: Emily Butzi.
Cast: Vanessa Becerra (Marie), Monet X Change (La Duchesse de Krakenthorp), Charles H. Eaton (a corporal), Margaret Gawrysiak (La Marquise de Birkenfeld), Paul Gutmann (a notary), David Portillo (Tonio), Jeremiah Sanders (Hortensius), Colyn Tvete (a peasant), Andrew Wilkowske (Sergeant Sulpice).