La Fille du Régiment
Judith Malafronte, Opera News
PORTopera’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (seen July 28) proved a much better showcase for soprano Ashley Emerson than the version I heard a month earlier at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It wasn’t just because the local-gal-turned-star was returning in triumph to her home turf in Portland, Maine. It was largely because Dona D. Vaughn’s PORTopera staging sidestepped the cheap humor that plagued the OTSL show and focused on character and relationships, generating a performance filled with buoyancy and charm.
Vaughn directs people, not props, which is a good thing for PORTopera, whose budget does not allow for awe-inspiring production elements. Shannon Zura’s sets featured wooden barricades that doubled as regimental camp tents (while Jamie Grant’s lighting brought a gradual sunset to Act I), with floating window frames and a tilted parquet floor suggesting Chateau Berkenfield. Paula Ninestein costumed the soldiers in black and grey, the party guests in outrageous bright colors, and dressed the diminutive Emerson attractively, without making her look like a doll.
Marie — the orphan adopted by a bunch of softhearted French soldiers — can be played with the stately silliness of Joan Sutherland or the manic tomboy frenzy of Natalie Dessay, but the audience must believe she is a sweet, straightforward girl, able to take her proper place in society once her aristocratic mother turns up. Gentle humor prevailed here — correcting a salute with the twist of a wrist, a botched coming-out tea party for Marie, mild affrontedness when a party guest arrives in the same dress as the hostess. Vaughn created a world of affection and sincerity in which totally believable characters — even the flustery, blustery Marquise — are trying to do what’s best.
Similarly, music director Stephen Lord brought a light touch, but a colorist’s ear, to the score. Tempos were perfect, yet phrasing was flexible, and the orchestra sounded both plush and transparent.
As Sulpice, sergeant of the regiment, Jan Opalach showed how effective comic timing and handsome tone can be when delivered with the good taste of a seasoned professional. In addition, Opalach’s endearing “Inspector Clouseau” accent made the transitions between sung French and spoken English especially easy.
In roles that are often overplayed, both Judith Christin (as the Marquise of Berkenfield) and Ellen Chickering (in the cameo role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp) showed similar restraint, eliciting laughs without campy excess. Christin’s formidable speaking voice extends to a booming basso, and she ordered everyone around (especially the put-upon Hortensius of Jeffrey Tucker) with cheerful bellows, also tossing off a three-octave cadenza with ease. Chickering, who drew on the experiences of an important singing career as director of PORTopera’s Young Artist Program until 2010, was a classy, larger-than-life party guest, singing the “Invocation to Venus” from Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène.
With the good looks of a high-school lacrosse player, Andrew Bidlack brought youthful energy and a sweet, smooth, well-placed tenor to the role of Tonio, with just the right lovely, French timbre for “Ah, mes amis,” with its infamous high Cs. Smaller roles were well handled by Robert E. Mellon (Corporal) and Brian Temple (Peasant).
But the evening belonged to Emerson, and the consistency of her musical energy, immaculate technique and physical grace made the role of Marie seem much easier than it is. While her sound is not large, it is concentrated and sweet, especially when soaring into its upper reaches. Emerson is a real professional, and her artistry includes plenty of panache for the extroverted numbers (“Chacun le sait,” “Salut à la France”) as well as lovely line for more intimate moments (“Il faut partir,” “Par le rang”).