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Musings: Donizetti's lightness aids a dark world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2011 - Grumpy's not good.

One often finds himself in the slough of grumpy for what he rationalizes are good reasons. Stretches of bad weather bring it on. Losing things or gaining weight are sure fire stimuli for grumpiness. Over scheduling causes it. Stress, certainly.

Sometimes grumpiness manifests itself not because anything is wrong really, but because the gears of the mind haven't meshed properly, and for no evident reason, grumpiness or cantankerousness takes hold of personalities usually more disposed to cheerfulness, and with a snarl and a growl, off one goes.

Grumpiness dug its fangs into me Saturday night at Opera Theatre as I watched Gaetano Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," and with every layering on of more schlag, more froth, more Three Stooges schtick, more mugging and with each effortless propulsion of radiant voices into the stratosphere by the stars of this show -- Ashley Emerson (Marie) and Rene Barbara (Tonio) -- I found more and more reasons to loathe this opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis's production of it.

The fundamental reason for not being interested in bel canto operas, of which "The Daughter" is an offspring,  is because what is thrilling about them, and what renders one camp of opera lovers giddy, is sheer vocal power and virtuosity rather than any concentration of philosophy or large "M" Message. High notes rather than great thoughts rule.

As I, clothed in some itchy, hand-me-down suit of Cotton Mather's, watch and listen to these operas, I find myself congratulating myself for preferring explorations of hearts of darkness, explorations found in Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which went up at Opera Theatre week ago, and in John Adams's "The Death of Klinghoffer," which goes up on Opera Theatre's stage Wednesday, June 15.

Our darling little "Daughter," however, is captured in a frivolous dramatic and moral space swinging and trilling in a gilded operatic birdcage hanging off tangents drawn from the worlds of "Don Giovanni" and "Klinghoffer." It is not unreasonable to say the happy-ending, ovation-evoking escapist sweetness of such a bonbon is somehow unconscionable: There is too much wrong in the world today. We, its inhabitants, are unwilling characters in a play running eternally in the theater of the chaos, a play directed by unpredictability, starring characters such as Fukushima, Misrata, Kandahar, Vidalia and Joplin.

How in the face of all that can we come to an opera by Donizetti?

The answer is Fun.

Opera Theatre's production of "The Daughter of the Regiment" is beautiful, hilarious, infectious; it puts demands not on our brains but thrills the senses. By checking Cotton Mather's itchy suit with an attendant, we give ourselves an exquisite time out, and we must do so, with some regularity, to maintain what passes for equilibrium. No sin is committed by taking a breath and having fun, the kind of fun offered by this delightful "Daughter of the Regiment." And one shouldn't forget the superstructure on which all this is hung is an alloy of extraordinary creativity, talent, irony and wit.

And so, sitting in the opera house during Act I on opening night of "Daughter" this weekend (May 28) I turned recent tragedies over and over in my mind, and by the time intermission arrived I was miserable -- and quite vocally grumpy. Taking a position on the crenelation of seriousness required considerable effort, for, in fact, I was having a very good time, thanks to Signor Donizetti, and so was an opera house full of other people, most of whom, at least from the cheers and the ovation given the talented young cast, were having a good time, too, watching a seamlessly entertaining show.

If I needed something to hammer down my notion that this "Daughter" was bringing me back from the hellish firestorms of "Don Giovanni" to the zephyr-cooled pleasures of the Tyrol, Act II was the blunt instrument. All the goofiness and improbabilities of Act I are more or less made a bit more sensible in Act II, and – happy ending time -- the darling Marie is allowed to wed High-C Tonio, and her rather wretched mother, the Marquise of Berkenfeld, falls into the arms and affections of kindly Sergeant Sulpice. As W. S, Gilbert would say, O Joy O Rapture!

And as we see and hear loose ends being tied in the middle, there is delightful misbehavior and campiness acted out in the margins of the glorious set, a concoction that includes the very effective creation of a proscenium arch, and footlights shaded by little drums.

Strikes are made to puncture pomposity, snobbery and ridiculousness -- arranged marriages, for example, and the exaltation of worn-out ennoblements. For such aristocratic pretentions, our heroine, the talented, plucky strategist Marie, declares herself not impressed. Why sign a contract to marry a Duke when the man she truly loves, Tonio -- the man who leaps multiple high Cs in a single bound -- the man who saved her when she fell off a cliff -- wants her to marry him?

And so, without too much digging, you find this opera is not devoid of social observations, and there are, I have to believe, suggestions of redemption, temporal at least. In times of trial (and when in the history of the world have men and women not lived in times of trial?) the breather may gain us healthy passage through our dismal history, so it becomes a coping mechanism, a means of survival. It is the landing on the steep stairway, a place to catch your breath.

In the passage from grumpiness into light in Act II there are many, many reasons for enlisting with the "Daughter of the Regiment" and all her colleagues. For veteran Opera Theatre regulars the appearance of Sylvia McNair in Act II is worth the price of admission. She sings, flaunts, vamps and soars over the ordinary in the role of Duchess of Crakenthorp, channeling the likes of the late Mme. Florence Foster Jenkins. McNair was once a regular on Opera Theatre's stage, but she launched a vocal trajectory that suited her better, and remains the charming, talented, radiant, ebullient performer I knew long ago.

In 1983, McNair starred in Berlioz's "Beatrice and Benedict." She was Hero, and at the conclusion of Act I, Hero and Ursula (Janice Taylor) sang a duet that surpasses beauty, a song celebrating the exquisite loveliness of the night.

As if by magic, the words came to life as fireflies appeared in the opera house. Do you remember? If you happened to be there, how could you forget?

Who's Who

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

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.