At every other moment in the Baltimore Opera Company's new production of Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," someone seems to be pouring champagne. This is an appropriate stage metaphor both for this opera and the kind of production it received: bubbly and frothy, insubstantial but fun.
The real hero of this production was director John Lehmeyer. He has moved the time and place of the opera from the Napoleonic wars in the Austrian Tyrol to the 1890s in Algiers. This places the opera squarely in Never-Never Land. The notion of nuns praying like Muslims or of Bedouin tribesman quaffing wine could not be more ridiculous -- but it works in this opera because its real location is the imaginary land of smiles. Lehmeyer, who also designed the costumes, also has a lot of fun with the idea of the French Foreign Legion and with a superbly comic make-believe camel. But one suspects that the real reason he may have updated the opera's time is to stress the opera's relationship -- for it is filled with revelations about the nobility of lost and misplaced infants now grown to maturity -- to other comic masterpieces of the Victorian age: the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan. Lehmeyer aimed to make "The Daughter of the Regiment" wonderful nonsense and -- most of the time -- he succeeded.
The cast, which sang the opera in English, was generally strong. A production of this piece rises or falls on the soprano who sings Marie -- the tomboyish "daughter" of the title -- and this part was done quite wonderfully by Nova Thomas. Thomas has a fine voice -- even in all registers, flexible enough for the role's coloratura roulades and secure in the highest part of its range. But what made her memorable was her dramatic ability. Her inspiration for creating the role seemed to be made of one part Betty Boop and one part Shirley Temple. Her sexy innocence made her the cynosure of all eyes -- which is exactly what the part demands.
Paul Hartfield, the Tonio, wasn't in the same class dramatically, and his smallish tenor sometimes seemed uncomfortable in the Lyric's large, unresonant space. But his voice is attractive, and he was able to take the repeated high C's in the first act finale with ease. In other roles, Elaine Bonazzi was a formidable Marquise; Claude Corbeil made an imposing and handsome Sulpice; Patrice Munsel did a star turn in the cameo role of the Duchess; and Melvin Lowery approached something near comic genius in the mostly speaking role of Hortensius. The playing of the orchestra under conductor Louis Salemno was -- except for some momentarily out of tune violins -- never less than competent.
A highlight of the production was an appearance in Act I by a drill team of Annapolis midshipmen. Watching these young men throw their M-1s (with bayonets fixed) around as if they were as light as feathers (they actually weigh about 14 pounds) was impressive indeed. If only the rest of what our tax dollars went for worked so well!
The production will be repeated Wednesday and Friday at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.