Major's light touch makes comic opera sparkle

December 28, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The best of the many excellent aspects of the Washington Opera's production of Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment" is the stage direction of Leon Major. This wonderful comic piece -- Mendelssohn expressed the wish that he had written it -- points the way to the operettas of Offenbach and those of Gilbert & Sullivan. But comedy is notoriously more difficult to put across than serious drama, and too many "Daughters" fall into the traps of kitsch and cuteness.

That wasn't the case in the English-language production unveiled Sunday. Major has directed his singing actors and his chorus with sufficient intelligence so they come alive as human beings rather than merely as comic ciphers, and he has paced the piece so its humor is unflagging. The singing lesson in which the Marquise de Berkenfield tries to make a lady of her long lost "niece" (actually her illegitimate daughter) and ends up battling Sergeant Sulpice, who has raised the child, in a duel of singing styles could not have been better.

And the rest of the opera's famous set pieces were staged with a similar mix of class and panache.

This is a beautiful production to look at -- Zack Brown's sets and costumes, as usual, are unobtrusively lovely -- and, for the most part, well sung and conducted.

The most impressive of the voices was that of Tracy Dahl, who sang the title role of the child Marie who is raised as a daughter by Sulpice and the other members of the 21st Regiment. Dahl has one of those high, light voices that one either loves or hates. She can sound a little like Minnie Mouse, but she is able to deal with the composer's high-flying coloratura effortlessly and the voice has enough heft so it can cut through and soar above choral ensembles. She's also quite a good comic actress -- one who isn't afraid to make herself look awkward to get the necessary laugh.

As the gruff, warm-hearted Sulpice, Thomas Hammons showed secure baritone voice and sure comic instincts. The same could be said about mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, who made the Marquise of Berkenfield ridiculous in her pomposity without depriving her of human dignity. John Lankston performed the non-singing role of the Marquise's steward, Hortensius, with a deft comic touch.

The single weakness in the cast -- relatively speaking -- was Craig Estepp as Tonio, the young Tyrolean who joins the 21st so he can marry Marie. He's an excellent young tenor who did not appear to be in his best voice. His voice had a covered quality that suggested he may have had a cold and there was palpable effort in the famous first act aria in which the hero is required to hit nine consecutive high Cs.

The orchestra was conducted knowledgeably by Cal Stewart Kellogg.

MUSIC REVIEW

What: "The Daughter of the Regiment"

When: Through Feb. 4

Where: Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: $85 and $140

Call: (202) 416-7800 or (800)-876-7372

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