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This rolicking performance of Gaetano Donizetti's French opera La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) signals the return of the Greensboro Opera to the stage after a short hiatus. And what a return, featuring outstanding singers in the lead roles, a great chorus, a powerful orchestra, and droll action on the stage of Aycock Auditorium on the campus of the University on North Carolina Greensboro!
In 1840, Donizetti was all the rage in Paris - much to the chagrin of several native French composers. While waiting for the French translation of another opera to be staged, Donizetti found time to compose this, his first opera originally in French, choosing a theme that was sure to be popular with French audiences.
Taking place in the Tyrolean Alps, Marie (Ashley Emerson, soprano), an orphan raised by the 21ième Régiment of the French army and serving as a vivanvière (canteen-server), falls in love with a local youth, Tonio (René Barbera, tenor), who eventually enlists in the French regiment to woo her. An unknown relative, the Marquise of Birkenfeld (Susan Nicely, mezzo-soprano), appears with the authority to take Marie to Austria to make a "lady" of the tomboy. Of course, the lover follows and the regiment eventually wins her back, but not without humorous situations and scandalous revelations.
Ashley Emerson has a voice to die for - clear, warm, impeccably in tune - and a look and stage manner that make her the perfect army waif. Her farewell aria, "Il faut partir...," with a lovely solo English Horn accompanying her, was a highpoint of the evening. (It is striking how the end of this touching aria and the ensuing trumpet fanfare parallel the William Tell Overture by Rossini, also premiered in Paris, a scant 11 years before!)
Her suitor, René Barbera, has a lovely high tenor voice with a sweet vibrato and an incredible range, uniformly colored from bottom to top. His aria "Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête," celebrating his induction into the French army, brought down the house with nine perfect high C's (eight in the score, the glorious ninth added by tradition).
The chorus was powerful and well trained with perfect French vowels. Although the women appeared only in the opening scene, they were as convincingly pious as the men in uniform were lusty - bravo to the chorus-master, Welborn E. Young.
Susan Nicely as the Marquise was the dramatic (read "comic") success of the evening, particularly in the dialogues (spoken in English) with Sulpice (Donald Hartman), the oft-promoted French soldier designated to be the protector of Marie. Hartman joined Ashley Emerson in the first act in a boisterous duet about military life and again in the second act as the perfect foil to her boredom in a hilarious trio scene during which the Marquise tries to make a lady out of her. Scott MacLeod, as Hortensius, the Marquise's servant, had his exquisite comic moments throughout the opera, as he sought to placate his employer.
David Holley, Artistic Director of the Greensboro Opera was the Producer/Stage Director of this production and responsible for the seamless flow of the action and endless supply of humor. Lighting Designer Jeff Neubauer had a touching moment of inspiration in the Farewell aria mentioned above.
The only serious issue to confront the opening night performance, which I heard from the fourth row of the balcony, had more to do with the hall than the performers. Although recently restored, Aycock Auditorium has no reverberation; the dryness of the hall makes it better suited to the spoken word than to music. (Did I actually see carpeting all over the floor of the orchestra pit in front of the stage?) The singers seemed to change timbres as they changed geographic orientation - one had to look up to make sure the same person was singing when they turned their head a different direction.
As a further result of the dry acoustics, the otherwise fine orchestra, composed largely of UNCG faculty and alumni, sounded super-crisp, more staccato than lyrical; unfortunately, the balance of the sections suffered as a result. When the horns played (which was almost constantly) they sounded so loud that the strings might as well have stayed home. The valiant Maestro Joel Revzen, who did an otherwise exemplary job of keeping orchestra and singers together in the most musical fashion, was powerless to subdue the brass when the whole orchestra was playing. Quelle dommage!
The opera will be repeated on January 11. For details, see the sidebar.