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Donizetti,The Daughter of the Regiment: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of San Francisco Opera. 28.10.2009 (HS)

Marie: Diana Damrau
Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez
Sulpice: Bruno Praticò
The Marquise of Berkenfeld: Meredith Arwady
The Duchess of Krakenthorp: Sheila Nadler
Hortensius: Jake Gardner

Conductor: Andriy Yurkevych
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set Designer: Chantal Thomas
Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly
Original Lighting Designer: Joël Adam
Choreographer: Karine Girard

Diana Damrau (Marie) Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) and Bruno Praticò (Sulpice)

Director Laurent Pelly’s Donizetti-meets-Laurel and Hardy production of The Daughter of the Regiment introduced soprano Diana Damrau to San Francisco audiences. In the penultimate performance of the run, seen Wednesday, she wowed ’em, and that would have been enough to make this mounting of Pelly’s folded-map setting worth seeing. It’s the same one that debuted last year at the Metropolitan Opera. Add tenor Juan Diego Florez, reprising the role in which he scored a huge hit at the Met, and a high-spirited cast that sang the music with impressive authenticity and clarity, and you can count this one as a hit.

Conductor Andriy Yurkevich, making his house debut in the pit, got the trains running on time but without investing the music with much extra sizzle or glitter. All the notes fit into place, but the rhythms didn’t “catch” as brightly as one could hope.

No such problems with the singers, especially the two stars. As Tonio, the Swiss peasant who falls in love with the title character, Florez was every bit as fresh, naive and endearing as he was in the Met production, one of the Live in HD theater broadcasts last spring. Here his bel canto singing was simply breathtaking, and he nailed the nine treacherous high C’s in “Ah, mes amis” as if he had an octave to spare. He was even better in the slow, arching, soulful “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” his liquid sound, impeccable phrasing and faultless dynamics investing the words with so much extra meaning.

As for Damrau, comparisons are inevitable with Natalie Dessay, who sang the role of Marie at the Met last spring. Dessay played it like a tomboy, which rang absolutely true to the story. Damrau did, too, and was every bit as funny and endearing. Her comic timing drew as many smiles and laughs. If anything, she sang it even better. Damrau’s sound has such purity and creaminess to go along with athletic agility and a range that doesn’t seem to quit. (She is a great Queen of the Night, after all, with all those high F’s.)

It was easy to fall in love with this Marie, as Donizetti gives us one characterful scene after another. Damrau’s flawless coloratura combines with action that deepens the character, underlining the emotions. Nothing seemed to faze Damrau, not all the folding of laundry in her Act I duet with Sulpice, the sergeant of the regiment, and then peeling of potatoes as sings a second duet with Tonio, in which they shyly admit they love each other. The regimental song, “Chacun el sait,” made for a rousing scene as she interpolated some high notes to keep things interesting.

Her funniest scene, though, had to be the singing lesson in Act II. Taken from the regiment to live with the Marquise de Berkenfeld at her mansion, she is stuffed into a white dress puffy with petticoats. The Marquise insists that she sing “an Italian aria” to her accompaniment, but with Sulpice’s encouragement, Marie slips in phrases from the regimental song. When Damrau sank to the floor in a puff of petticoats, her feet stuck out at odd angles. Another moment found her banging on the piano keyboard in frustration. And yet, a moment later, she could switch gears for quiet, reflective and affecting “Par le rang et l’opulence.”

As the Marquise, contralto Meredith Arwady wielded a powerful low range, a stature far beyond her youth (she only recently finished the opera’s Merola development program), impressive comic timing and sensitive singing in ensembles and scenes. Arwady, who made a strong impression in the company’s Il trittico recently as Frugola in “Il tabarro” and Zita in “Gianni Schicchi,” is definitely a singer to watch.

As Sulpice, baritone Bruno Praticó (like Damrau making a company debut) could not quite rise to the same vocal heights as these three, but carried his share of the dramatic and comedic load well. Sheila Nadler, who has sung a number of alto roles at this company, took the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, an aging social lion who wants to marry off her absent son to Marie. She loomed well and delivered her snobbish lines with panache. High marks, too, to the small troupe of male dancers dressed up as ennui-ridden maids in the opening of Act II.

This production gleefully mines the comedic possibilities in Daughter of the Regiment, but it always remains musical. The travesty ballet is one example. There were countless moments where the characters use a musical phrase to underline an action deftly. Comic opera doesn’t get much better.

Harvey Steiman

Picture © Cory Weaver

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