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Opera Theatre salutes the 'Daughter of the Regiment'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - Gaetano Donizetti's comic opera "The Daughter of the Regiment" is the champagne of operas. Set in an idyllic Swiss Tyrol village, it's light, bubbly and fun. It opens Saturday night and runs in rotation through June 26 as the second of the four new productions in Opera Theatre's spring festival season.

Donizetti, a 19th-century Italian composer, was living the high life of a popular composer in Paris when he asked two Frenchmen, Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-Francois-Alfred Bayard, to write an original libretto for him. Their meringue creation had its world premiere in 1840 at the Paris Opera Comique.

"Daughter" is a singers' opera. Anyone who has ever sung in a chorus, church choir or even a high school musical can't help but be awestruck by the incredible demands on the romantic leads, the tenor Tonio, sung by Rene Barbera, and coloratura Marie, sung by Ashley Emerson.

The couple's instant infatuation is expressed with romantic blending of rapturous high notes. Donizetti gave the world 70 operas, including his tragic masterpiece "Lucia di Lammermoor," but for 170 years, audiences have been grateful for this musical valentine.

"It is a show our public has asked for again and again, and we are finally repeating it after 20 years," said Stephen Lord, OTSL's longtime music director and one of Opera News magazine's 25 most powerful leaders.

"Daughter" is a wonderful first opera for kids, said Lord. "First of all, it is on the short side and, in this production, there is always something visual to watch for. Second, it is about young people, and the old people learn their lesson. And for all the same reasons, a newbie would be enchanted by it."

A Joyful Tale

"Daughter" tells an optimistic story about the goodness of people. Marie, an apparently orphaned child, is found by French soldiers on a Swiss battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars. The entire 21st regiment of wholesome, charming soldiers adopt and protect her as she grows. The kindly Sgt. Sulpice, sung by Dale Travis, serves as her chief foster father.

These kind-hearted singing troops are nothing like Napoleon's troops who took over Europe and marched to Moscow. Nor are they burdened or burnt out like soldiers on the evening news. They're a jolly band -- more like models for chocolate soldiers in candy boxes.

They dress Marie as a mascot in a regimental jacket, teach her useful tasks and are proud of her tomboy spirit. She delights them by singing their regiment's marches and patriotic songs. Under Sulpice the soldiers make a pact that she can only marry a member of the regiment, then, only with their approval. In her late teens, along comes a Swiss peasant named Tonio who falls for her.

Tonio seems neutral to Swiss patriotic pride and enlists in the French 21st regiment to gain Marie's hand.

As the story unfolds Marie's identity is discovered and eventually her mother "found." Her biological family plans an arranged marriage with the Duke of Crakenthorp. Soprano Sylvia McNair who won her first glimmer of national attention when she sang at Opera Theatre decades ago returns as the very grand Duchess of Crakentrop.

Before she heads down the aisle, Marie's rather boisterous beauty needs a make-over. For Marie's "finishing school" scene, director Sean Curran has choreographed a ballet parody in which Marie, now a perfect 19th-century lady, shows that she still is a tomboy and a daughter of the regiment. From the moment their voices blend beautifully, no opera lover should have a wisp of worry that Tonio and Maria won't end up together.

Daughter's Family Tree

Two years ago at Opera Theatre, Curran, a choreographer by training, took a career leap and made his directing debut in OTSL's "Salome."  It was a logical move for Curran to direct Kelly Kaduce in the title role because Salome's dance before King Herod and her removal of those seven veils are key to that opera.

(An aside: Last fall, Kaduce had to cancel her appearance this season because she was pregnant. In early May, her son Colin was born. His name honors the late OTSL artistic director Colin Graham who "discovered" Kaduce and was her devoted mentor until his death.)

In preparing to direct "Daughter," Curran recalled that Beverly Sills once described the role of Marie as "Lucille Ball with high notes." Along with the tomgirls of American musical theater -- Betty Hutton in "Annie Get Your Gun," Debbie Reynolds in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and Carol Burnett in "Once Upon a Mattress" -- that's what he's aiming for in Emerson as Marie.

(In 1990, Tracy Dahl sang Marie here. Last spring, Dahl returned to sing the spoiled Violet Beauregard in "The Golden Ticket." But night after night under the tent after performances, Dahl was surrounded by St. Louis fans who praised her, some in great detail for her rendition of Marie -- two decades before. When sung beautifully and well acted by a gifted comedian like Dahl, the role is etches into memory.)

A Frothy Opera but with Vocal Challenges

Donizetti wrote "Daughter" so that the singers could do complex improvisatory lines. In opera, these virtuosic improvisations are called cadenzas. The more the cadenzas the coloratura does, the more vivacious Marie can seem. Emerson, a former Gerdine Young Artist, has been rehearsing cadenzas with conductor John McDaniel for more than three weeks now. Saturday night the audience will hear the results.

Marie's cadenzas, the role's quick martial music and demanding high notes have made many coloratura sopranos famous. Marie's high Ds in a bubbly mix of notes rises all the way to the E flat. That's two octaves above middle C. What makes a coloratura soprano different from most sopranos is that she must sing not just higher but also much faster than most sopranos.

Tonio's tenor role in "Daughter of the Regiment" is also a star maker. The young Luciano Pavarotti won worldwide fame as Tonio when he slipped into the role at New York's Metropolitan Opera at the last minute opposite Joan Sutherland.

Tonio has the opera's most famous aria, known by its first line "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fete!" (Ah! my friends, what a celebration day). It's been called the tenor's "Mount Everest" because it requires the tenor to sing nine high Cs.

You just might catch Rene Barbera on a night when he provides eight Cs and climbs to high D. St. Louis opera lovers are not greedy. Over the company's past 35 seasons, they've lamented when several gifted young singers who showed brilliant promise in St. Louis later pushed their vocal chords too far, too soon and injured their voices permanently. Hitting the nine high Cs remains a celebration, especially on a rainy night.

"The singing, while difficult, sounds free and natural with this cast," Lord said. "While it is full of typical 'opera' conventions, it is light, airy, has wonderfully witty dialogue and jokes and a lot of tunes one can remember even tap the toe to."

Daughter of the Regiment

Conductor John McDaniel

Stage Director/Choreographer Sean Curran

Set Designer/Costume Designer James Schuette

Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind

Marie Ashley Emerson

Tonio Rene Barbera

Sulpice Dale Travis

Marquise of Berkenfeld Dorothy Byrne

Duchess of Crackentorp Sylvia McNair

Hortensius Jason Eck

Performances: May 28, June 1, 3, 9, 18 (matinee), 22 (matinee), 26

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, attended and covered OTSL's 1976 opening night "Don Pasquale" featuring Ron Raines. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.