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La Fille du Régiment
Seattle Fille stars Coburn and Brownlee
© Elise Bakketun Photography 2014
Seattle Opera followed August's superb production of Wagner's mighty Ring with La Fille du Régiment, Donizetti's 1840 opéra comique that points toward operetta (seen Oct. 26). Yves Abel's fine conducting, abetted by Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee's adorable Marie and Tonio, cushioned the Valhalla-to-village fall.
Coburn, slim and beautiful, moved so gracefully that it was always evident that Marie was of noble birth, more ladylike vivandière than tomboy army brat. There was grace, too, in Coburn's coloratura arsenal — trills, runs, grace notes, the swelling of held high notes, indeed, everything high came off with aplomb. Early in the evening, her midrange sounded occluded and unattractive, but this cleared for "Il faut partir," Marie's poignant farewell to her beloved regiment, in which Coburn's singing, accompanied by the exemplary English-horn playing of Stefan Farkas, was increasingly moving through a lacerating cadenza. Act II's "Par le rang," which shows Marie alone and bereft, was similarly communicative. Coburn was focused and persuasively in character throughout the demanding role.
Probably no one in McCaw Hall expected Brownlee to be at all fazed by the nine high Cs of "Pour mon âme," but many may not have expected him to sing them with such panache, the second of each pair exploding into sound, the last one held and held with no loss of tone quality. That drew the crowd's loudest roar, but just as worthy was his legato singing in "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," which he capped with high alternatives that took him to D with clarity, beauty and ease.
Abel gave Coburn and Brownlee plenty of space for the above slowish airs, but his tempos for the soldiers' choruses were fast and exhilarating, the rhythms superbly sprung. Like the best Offenbach conductors, Abel might set a fast pace and excitingly accelerate in the last bars of a number or act. Donizetti's zippy trio "Tous les trois réunis" already sounds like Offenbach, who also was evoked by Act I's subterranean tavern set and Act II's dancing servants. Finally, we heard Offenbach: sorting through the Marquise de Berkenfield's sheet music as the Duchesse de Krakenthorp en travesti, Peter Kazaras — who has sung Loge and directed Tristan for Seattle Opera — rejected Wagnerian fare before singing the tipsy air from La Périchole.
Orchestra, chorus and supporting players were all one could ask. Baritone Alexander Hajek was a young, nimble, firm-voiced Sulpice. Veteran mezzo Joyce Castle's Marquise expertise extended to playing the piano for Marie and the Duchesse. Tenor Karl Marx Reyes sang well as solicitous Hortensius. Hajek, Castle, Reyes and the in-drag Kazaras, in parts that often are overplayed for easy laughs, all resisted — a sign of a strong director, Emilio Sagi, who allowed the soldiers their dignity, eschewing clichéd, F Troop-style shtick.
The late Julio Galán originally designed the show's well-traveled sets and costumes for Teatro Comunale di Bologna; the production has since played at Houston Grand Opera, the New Israeli Opera and San Diego Opera, among other theaters. The setting is a small village in France during World War II. In Act I's subterranean tavern, the soldiers, American GIs in khakis, entered through a secret passage behind the bar and got war news by radio. Returning to be with Marie, Tonio bicycled along a street high above the tavern, crashed and hobbled downstairs with his bent-up bike; Marie donned a Red Cross cap and nursed his wounded leg during their love duet.
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