Friday, July 29, 2011

Fille-Nominal Fille du Regiment

Last night when the curtain came down on PORTopera’s new production of La Fille du Regiment it was with a roar more typically heard at a rock concert. The entire cast and charming production certainly deserved it, but it was clear whose fan club was in attendance as Maine native soprano made her big girl role debut with the company as Marie.

After a frothy account of Donizetti’s faux military orchestra (sans some horn issues) the curtain rose on an enormous barricade built of furniture – chairs and other household items. Flanking it, atop and on all sides, the Tyrolean villagers, ready for combat armed with rakes and other garden tools, and standing guard against the invading French army. Frequently first act stage pictures, (particularly the military camp), evoked the feel of a Bertrand Tavernier film (that is if he made comedies). Shannon Zura's moveable platforms adjusted quickly, instantly becoming whatever space the staging required. The second act set with its mile high drawing room (and gorgeous parquet flooring) was raked horizontally creating a physically off-kilter look which added to the onstage hijinks created by the awkwardness of plot situations. Jamie Grant's lighting design emphasized the natural brightness of the tale, and with restrained subtlety, added the perfect atmosphere in more gentle and introspective moments.

Fresh from a run of Fille in St. Louis, Ashley Emerson offered perfect comic chops, an instantly adorable stage personality and a face that expressed perfectly young Marie’s wide range of emotions. The voice, like its owner, is on the petite size, but as a critic once told me “some singers you really have to lean in to hear, but they are oh so worth leaning in for.” Emerson is clearly in that camp; the voice has a pure quality that positively gleams and as secure a technique as I’ve heard from a young singer. Her attacks were spot on - no adjustments, just there every time. She showed off a brilliant upper extension with no loss of vibrancy and zero strain and a renarkable evenness throughout the range. For such a clear, bright sound, Emerson is also able to summon up a remarkable warmth for moments such as "Il faut Partir" which was limpid and properly heartbreaking, bringing down the house. Throughout the evening I kept thinking “future Zerbinetta." I can also imagine a Semele, Cleopatra and a number of other Handel operas that would seem to be a natural fit.

PORTopera lucked out in nabbing tenor Andrew Bidlack as Tonio. A beautiful, italianate sound built for bel canto, Bidlack sailed through his assignment with aplomb, verve and boyish good looks - a perfect match for his Marie. Overall, while the voice is bright there is a slight tendency towards covering high notes - not all of them. Such was certainly not the case with those those famous nine high C's in "Ah mes amis" which he tossed off with an almost uncanny ease.

Jan Opalach has become a Portland favorite and last night his beautifully sung and hilarious Sulpice showed exactly why, nowhere more so then when joined by Emerson and Bidlack in the infectious trio "Tous les trois réunis" - (perhaps my favorite moment of this entire opera). The staging - and Donizetti's effervescent music - could not help but produce the broadest of smiles.

It's always a joy to see Judith Christin and as The Marquise of Birkenfeld, her speaking voice frequently dipped into the bass-baritone range adding an extra measure of fun. Her work in the Lesson Scene, was a masterclass in operatic comic acting. Teamed up with Jeffrey Tucker as Hortensius, they made quite the pair.

In a scene re-tooled for the Duchess of Krakenthorp, Ellen Chickering, in a matter of minutes, managed to practically steal the show with an interpolated (and ridiculous) aria about her character's bloated ego and the difficulties of being so beautiful and admired. A great and awful song done to perfection.

The PORTopera Orchestra and Chorus were ably led in grand bel canto style by Stephen Lord. At times balances (but never tempi) between stage and pit were a bit off, the orchestra covering the voices - though most of the time things sounded just right.

As ever, Dona D. Vaughn's direction was sharp, clear, uncluttered pointing every moment to its comic zenith without ever going over the top. It's clear to see why singers love working with her: the end result is a satisfied audience happily going along for the three hour tour. Honestly, I can't imagine a better way to spend a beautiful summer evening.

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