Madison Opera opened The Daughter of the Regiment, in Overture Center's Capitol Theater on Friday. The Capitol Theater is a grander facility than the Playhouse, where Madison Opera productions have been staged in the recent past, and it serves this production well. The second and final performance takes place on Sunday, Feb. 9, at 2:30 p.m.
While Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti is known for his Italian operas, he also spent time in France, where he composed some French operas. By far the best known is La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment), which premiered in 1840. For a while an Italian version, La figlia del regiment, was performed, but in recent decades the original French version has become the standard.
As such, it remains an opéra comique, made up of musical numbers alternating with spoken dialogue. Out of mercy to the non-Francophone singers, who are better at singing in French than speaking in it, the musical sections are presented in French and the dialogue in English. While that solution may trouble purists and French speakers, it works well, especially for a production that adds up to pure delight.
The opera's plot is built around the premise that the young heroine, Marie, was rescued as a baby by a regiment of French soldiers. As surrogate fathers, they raised her as a beloved camp girl. They resist at first when an ardent young Tyrolean named Tonio wins her love, but the joy is shattered when Marie is claimed by her "aunt" (later revealed to be her mother), who wants her to have a cultivated upbringing and an aristocratic marriage. After much turmoil, Marie is rescued by her beloved Tonio, and the mother succumbs to the attractions of Sergeant Sulpice, the regiment's leader.
Madison Opera has assembled a wonderfully able cast, with particular strength in the four leading roles. The high-lyric part of Tonio is taken by Javier Abreu, in his company debut. He is an experienced singer of comparable Rossini roles, with a ringing voice and adept technique, and he can confidently deliver the high-flying high Cs in that composer's most famous aria. Tall and stocky veteran baritone Nathan Stark is ideal as the blustering but warm-hearted Sulpice.
The two female leads are UW-Madison products, if of different generations. Mezzo-soprano Allisanne Apple has a long history of singing character roles hereabouts, especially in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. She is a superb actress as well as an excellent singer. Pert young Caitlin Cisler, who not so many years ago was a graduate student singing in UW Opera productions, has matured into an extraordinary artist. Her bright, clear high soprano perfectly fits Marie's character, while her acute stage instincts make her an adroit comedienne. This is a singer with promise of a brilliant future.
The male chorus of soldiers is drilled admirably, firm in its singing and great fun in its disciplined movements. John DeMain's steady hand guides the orchestral support, which is solid. The costumes from the Saint Louis Opera Theatre are sumptuous, and the scenery from the Virginia Opera is simple but evocative.
Much credit for the cleverly conceived and artfully organized staging belongs to director David Lefkowich. I found his handling of Handel's Acis and Galatea disgraceful last winter, but in The Daughter of the Regiment he is clearly in his element. Gestures and movements are expertly worked out with the singers, to take full advantage of their theatrical talents. The arrival of guests for a reception in Act II was particularly deft.
In all, The Daughter of the Regiment is another triumph for Madison Opera. It is a joy to see, to hear, and to relish.