There are four reasons to see Saturday’s MET Live in HD performance of Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment” – (and one not to).
Donizetti’s 1840 comedic opera, “The Daughter of the Regiment” is a sparkling jewel passed down to us from the bel canto era. Beautiful singing translates as razzle-dazzle phrasing, curlicue ornamentation, filigree ensembles and sprightly orchestration. Bel canto style reached a peak in Donizetti’s writing. Known more for elaborate musical style than its silly plot, the opera is a study in elegant frivolity – in other words, a matchless period piece.
French director and designer Laurent Pelly has reconceived Donizetti’s fluffy opera by time-traveling to World War I. Set in the Swiss Tyrol, the period enables Pelly to exaggerate a military camp and an aristocratic castle for the two-act opera.The 21st Regiment encamps in the mountains where Marie, an orphan girl, functions as a mascot. In modern parlance, Marie (soprano Pretty Yende) is a tomboy and pledged to grow up and marry a regimental soldier. Set aside your disbelief at this odd arrangement and accept the fact that teenage Marie falls in love with Tonio (tenor Javier Camarena), a young Tyrolean peasant.
Complications ensue when a Marquise (mezzo Stephanie Blythe) happens to travel through the area and recognizes Marie as her long-lost niece. At the family castle in Act II, said Marquise has arranged for Marie to marry the Duke of Krakenthorp. She also mysteriously reveals that Marie is actually her illegitimate daughter, which leads to the fourth reason to see this coincidence-laden opera.Enter the Duchess Krakenthorp (screen actress Kathleen Turner in the Met production). She lists the qualifications for any girl to marry her son, the Duke. Traditionally, the role was reserved for an aging singer or comedian, and it has been played by celebrities well into the present. In 2017, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her so-called opera debut as the Duchess at Kennedy Center. The Washington National Opera staged a production and invited the U.S. Supreme Court justice and life-long opera fan to appear in the role. Ginsburg was also granted the privilege of writing her own dialogue. Among the qualifications she listed: “fortitude to undergo scrutiny, character beyond reproach and a birth certificate.” Need I say that the “birther movement” was still in popular memory when Ginsberg appeared on stage.
Finally, one reason not to attend Saturday’s live streaming is to count the number of high C’s tenor Camarena must attempt. Opera snobs, including some critics, emphasize the 18 stratospheric notes the role calls for. Counting high C’s is not my idea of opera appreciation, so be warned not to read all the hype about Donizetti’s challenge.Sung in French with English subtitles, “La Fille du Régiment” runs two hours and 30 minutes.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.