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Opera Scene: 'Daughter of the Regiment'

Spunky army girl stays loyal to her troop by tossing out her legacy

There is a definite flavor of the military in San Diego Opera’s opening production for the 2013 season of Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment.” The music score itself has several themes of a marching cadence, drumbeats and all. Then the updated staging to a period at the end of World War II adds to the martial tone of the light drama.

The opera has a simple story line about a young orphan girl raised by a regiment of regulars who falls in love with a local country boy. He has to join the army to be eligible as a suitable spouse in the eyes of the girl’s “fathers.” Before the wedding takes place, the girl’s real legacy is revealed forcing her to become the niece of a wealthy aristocrat who plans an arranged marriage. As the plot unfolds, the hapless Marie never loses her nostalgia and strong loyalty to the regiment.

Some stage horseplay and mistaken identities, so necessary in 19th century comic opera, was a popular form of entertainment when the opera premiered in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in 1840. There is a happy ending when Marie marries her soldier boy Tonio, but only after the tenor sings his signature aria with nine high Cs. The challenge is met by Stephen Costello for the first time as he returns to SDO after appearing in prior seasons as Romeo and Faust.

Marie is sung by Slovakian coloratura soprano L’úbica Vargicová after performances at the Met Opera and Salzburg. The young lovers are backed up by veteran Met Opera stars in the comic roles of the Marquise, sung by the indomitable Ewa Podle, and the Duchess, played by Carol Vaness, and a robust male chorus of American soldiers.

The San Diego Opera’s opening production for the 2013 season is Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment.”

Donizetti’s comic operas are adaptable to updating the time and place. Last season SDO performed the composer’s “Don Pasquale” in a Wild West scenario. The Metropolitan Opera opened its current season with his “Elixir of Love” in a later period but retained the Italian countryside setting. This SDO production is from Teatro Comunale di Bologna and moves the action from the Swiss Tyrol during the Napoleonic War to an American army camp in France in the waning year of World War II.

“Daughter of the Regiment” by SDO was seen twice in San Diego and once in Phoenix, the most notable in 1973 starring Beverly Sills in a production that traveled the country with several opera companies. On opening night in San Diego, the special guest was Lily Pons, the Met Opera star of the 1940s who owned the role of Marie during her glittering career. The gala production was so popular that the Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer literally fell over his praises, not usually his reaction to regional opera company productions.

As more and more bel canto operas came back into the popular repertory in the 1970s, it coincided with the artistic fame of Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland who both sang the role of Marie to great acclaim over the world. The score has one after another tuneful arias showcasing the artistry of a coloratura soprano. The military music in the final scene is so patriotic that the opera is performed at Paris’s Opéra-Comique every Bastille Day.

The role of Tonio likewise has been an artistic vehicle for lyric tenors who can handle the nine high Cs in the joyful aria expressing his love for Marie. Luciano Pavarotti rose to fame with this role and is still the standard for tenors to measure up to.

This production is the SDO debut of Franco-Canadian conductor Yves Abel who has appeared at the major opera houses of Europe and America, most recently at the Metropolitan Opera. Another SDO debut is the stage director, Emilio Sagi of Madrid, Spain, who has staged this opera in an update to modern times at Washington D.C., Houston and Tel Aviv.

“Daughter of the Regiment” is sung in French with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26, Tuesday, Jan. 29 and Friday, Feb. 1; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3. For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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