Following the successful Parisian debut of his Lucie di Lammermoor at the Theatre de la Rennaissance in August of 1839, Gaetano Donizetti moved swiftly to establish himself in the nineteenth century’’s most prestigious musical capital by announcing four additional premieres in the city of lights. While two of these, L’Ange de Nisida and Le Duc d’Albe, where ultimately abandoned (L’Ange is incidentally scheduled to receive its premiere this July at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) the remaining works made their way to the stage. At L’Opera, the composer refurbished his Poliuto within the confines of grand opera convention under the new title Les Martyrs, which coupled with the tragedy of Lucie, further underlined the composer’s facility in the dramatic realm. Between them, however, he offered a work of contrasting light-hearted and dazzling verve, which debuted at the Opera Comique in February of 1840. This was La Fille du Regiment, an opera that not only served to showcase the composer’s versatility in both tragic and comedic subjects, but also peddled his unapologetic argument to the French audience to embrace him as one of their own. Despite the initial critical reception (with my school-days hero Hector Berlioz leading the pack,) the opera became a mainstay in Paris and Francophone regions, receiving multiple presentations at the Comique and hallmarking traditional patriotic holidays such as Bastille day. The opera’s current outing at the Atlanta Opera, which your friends at newoutpost were fortunate to experience in its second presentation on Tuesday February 17, serves the company as a veritable palate cleanser between the brooding Byronic drama of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander and Bizet’s savage Carmen. By all accounts, the company has done much to restore the piece back to its original scale and presented the work as the light, frothy affair it was intended to be.
Significant credit for this feat belongs to the production team. The scenery, which was designed by James Noone and came to Atlanta via Washington National Opera, comprised of an oval keyhole which showcased both the military camp as well as the interior of the Marquise’s chateau. They fulfilled their duty in framing the action without ever distracting from it, and nowadays this certainly counts as a virtue. In her direction of the action, Stage Director E. Loren Meeker (despite some unnecessary stage business for the soldiers which ultimately choreographer Meg Gillentine has to answer for) presented the opera with virtually no distracting interpolations and allowed the proceedings to follow an organic flow. The situations were introduced at face value, no foreign element was underlined, no feature film was projected unto the alps, no hashtag campaign was unveiled. We were left to face the virtues of Donizetti’s music and the libretto by Bayard and de Saint-Georges uninterrupted, and your friends at newoutpost can only underline how refreshing it is to be able to utter these words in 2018. Musically, we were treated to new leadership with the introduction of the young maestro Christopher Allen, who despite a couple of mishaps during the more exacting ensembles and some skimming of the score’s buffoonery, managed to carry off the evening with a crisp and clear beat. The always excellent Atlanta Opera Chorus was well rehearsed by chorus master Rolando Salazar, who also found the time to don his own costume and serve as pianist during the hilarious singing lesson scene which opens the opera’s second act.
Production values aside, the opera requires a leading lady capable of embodying the character’s charming naivete while negotiating the part’s demanding musical hurdles with legitimate mastery. Making her Atlanta Opera debut, soprano Andriana Chuchman scored a well deserved triumph as the lovable tom boyish Marie. She is gifted with the physique du role to grace her impersonation, and her deportment, both in gesture and movement, were well judged and unmannered (her eyes in particular were very expressive). The assessment of her instrument brings us an even, rosy colored soprano of light density, generous flexibility and an easy ascend to a glassy top range. These qualities were not revealed right away, however, and she needed her opening scena, the extended duet with Sulpice “Ah bruit de la guerre,” to shake off a tentative approach. Once she found her bearings, she excelled in the slow adagio sections, such as the act one finale “Il faut partir!” and the act two cavatina “Par le rang et par l’opulence.”
In these, she wrapped her resources around the lachrymose melodies with a gleaming beam of pure sound projected with remarkable Victorian evenness and shaped her phrases with a voice that is perhaps not inherently expressive through singing that was. In addressing the part’s glaring coloratura challenges, Ms. Chuchman’s appeal suffered slightly, and some would point out that while her negotiation of the complicated pages of passage work was accurate enough to please, it consistently fell just short of brilliant. Others would point to the weakness of her trill, or that the pesky mannerism of approaching a note from the one below threatened to undermine the vibrancy of her legato and the melodic buoyancy of the score. These are certainly valid concerns that we hope this young artist will take the time to address as she continues to escalate the ranks of what already looks to be an important career.
Followers of this blog will remember the enthusiastic response generated by Santiago Ballerini when he replaced the scheduled opening night Ernesto in the Atlanta Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale last season. From his very utterance, the young Argentinian tenor harkened back to an age that gave us Tito Schipa, Cesare Valletti, Ferruccio Tagliavini, and a league of other exponents who underlined the adjective in the term “tenore di grazia”. Following that fabled evening, Mr. Ballerini has flirted with repertoire that requires a beefier profile (namely the role of Gualtiero in Bellini’s Il Pirata) and now returns to Atlanta to essay the challenge of young, sweet Tonio. To be sure, he scored another success, but whether perhaps by virtue of expectation, or a situation which no longer framed him as the underdog, his accomplishment did attract due scrutiny. But first let us focus on his gifts, and they are considerable. His tenor is slight, italianate in sound and expertly wielded. He has an innate feel for the phrasing of the Donizetti cantinela, knows just when to give a measure its due vibrancy, when to rev up the tone, and when to pull back from it. His messa voce is poised and well supported, and he can match any Italian dandy from the last century when revelling in the use of an exploitative fil di voce. Indeed, during these exercises in breath control that had the young artist degrade his voice down to the thinnest yet unbroken filament of sound, the audience seemed to hold its collective breath with him. That said, as applied specifically to the role of Tonio, Mr. Ballerini’s charms (particularly the projection of the middle tones) were often sacrificed to the opera’s orchestral support, and this made for some frustration during the opera’s first act.
The first warning signs came during his first number of importance, the extended duet with Marie in the first act “Quoi? Vous m’aimez?” Here, the combination of two well matched yet moderately sized instruments made for glaring contrast with the orchestral support, calling into question the size of the venue, the orchestral fabric of the score, or any other possible elements that seemed to be detaining the full sonic enjoyment of the affair. This gave way to tentative concern at the advent of the next big number, the celebrated “Ah mes amis!” The fabled aria, with its terrifying nine high C’s, the aria that made Pavarotti a star, the part of the LP that was wore out the most in the 70s, and the youtube link that keeps being taken down by Universal (only to be replaced days later with a new incarnation) loomed ahead. Mr. Ballerini more than survived it, and sang the ditty with steady aplomb, arrived at each climax with schooled security, capped each high C with a lively squillo and gave each tone its full musical value. The ovation that followed honored his effort more as a fait accompli than the visceral event that only a voice of greater scintillating power could inspire. At this stage we venture to say that while Mr. Ballerini is capable of encompassing bravura singing, it is not yet his strength, and one had to wait for his second act aria, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” to truly sample the better aspects of his art. These being grace, sweetness, elegance, were experienced thanks to a muted orchestra that allowed his very whisper to carry, and ultimately amounted to qualities audiences today are not readily offered from the current stock of tenors. Having Mr. Ballerini in its roster is a huge credit to the Atlanta Opera, and we’re thankful for his continued participation.
The supporting characters were expertly realized. As Marie’s long lost aunt/mother, Stephanie Blythe’s blustering and appropriately fruity mezzo-soprano provided luxury casting for the part of the Marquise of Berkenfiled. Her comedic partner in crime, sergeant Sulpice, was portrayed by the fabulous Stefano de Peppo. They bounced of their antics against the stern faced Hortensius of bass-baritone Tyler Simpson, while the snooty presence of the Duchess of Krakenthorp was well served by veteran actor Shannon Eubanks. They all join forces to make this production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment a memorable experience and a good time for audiences of all ages.
There are two presentations left of the Atlanta Opera’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. For more information, please visit the company’s website at: www.atlantaopera.org