Opera Review: ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’

Donizetti’s comic opera lifts the spirits with the tenor’s high C’s.
Opera Review: ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’
Tonio (Lawrence Brownlee), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Michael Brosilow)
11/9/2023
Updated:
12/28/2023
0:00
CHICAGO—It’s been almost a half-century since the Lyric Opera of Chicago presented “The Daughter of the Regiment.”  It’s hard to believe that the Lyric waited 50 years to reprise Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, which first premiered in Paris in 1840.  Maybe the company waited so long because they were worried that the opera’s thin plot wouldn’t appeal to today’s sophisticated opera aficionados.

Indeed, with a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean Francois Bayard, the story of “The Daughter of the Regiment” is rather straightforward and simple. It’s about Marie, an orphan who was brought up by a group of paternal French soldiers, and who now cooks and cleans for them. The crux of the tale revolves around the now grown-up Marie who falls in love with, Tonio, a poor fellow whom the soldiers, especially Sgt. Sulpice, believes is unsuitable for their beloved girl.

Marie (Lisette Oropesa), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Michael Brosilow)
Marie (Lisette Oropesa), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Michael Brosilow)

Things get more complex, though, when Marie’s aunt the Marquise of Berkenfield, whom Marie never met and didn’t know existed, arrives to take her away. The wealthy and snobbish aunt wants Marie to have a better life and is dead set on getting her educated and involved with a higher strata of society and with more honorable consorts.  Of course, since the opera is supposed to be a romantic comedy, love triumphs at the end and everyone lives happily ever after.

That said, it appears that the Lyric made a decision to reprise the opera because they believed that Donizetti’s delicious melodic score would overcome the opera’s slight plot. Indeed, under Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci’s baton, in her debut at the Lyric, the Lyric Orchestra was in top form and the music was intoxicating.

Furthermore, the Lyric may have held back in reviving the opera because “The Daughter of the Regiment” makes extremely high demands on its performers. After all, it requires a tenor that can hit the nine high C’s of Donizetti’s score.  Pavarotti thrilled the world when he did so as the Regiment’s tenor, Tonio, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1973, but there are not many tenors today who can match those heights.

The Marquise (Ronnita Miller, L) and Marie (Lisette Oropesa), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)
The Marquise (Ronnita Miller, L) and Marie (Lisette Oropesa), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)
However, presenting the opera became possible when tenor Lawrence Brownlee became available. He was remarkable as Tonio, hitting the high C notes in “Ah! Mes amis … Pour mon âme” in the first act.  He received such a grateful and tremendous ovation that the thunderous applause stopped the show. If that wasn’t enough to endear him to the opening-night audience, Ms. Brownlee went on to deliver another riveting moment when he asked for Marie’s hand in marriage singing, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie.”
The company of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Michael Brosilow)
The company of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Michael Brosilow)

Mr. Brownlee was well matched with Lisette Oropesa, who shined in the role of Maria. The American soprano was a charming heroine who demonstrated not only a golden-voice rendition of “Quand le destin,” but proved to have some wonderfully comic moments in response to the demands of the soldiers and of her controlling aunt.

Others who contributed terrific performances to the opera include baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice, the regimental sergeant who believes he’s a father figure to Marie, and can approve or disapprove of her love interests. As the Marquise, soprano Ronnita Miller provided the impediment for the young lovers; Joy Hermalyn was fun as the Duchess of Crakentorp; and bass-baritone Alan Higgs was a hoot as the butler Hortensius, proving that a little humor can often go a long way.

The Notary (Loreano Quant) and the Countess of Crakentorp (Joy Hermalyn), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)
The Notary (Loreano Quant) and the Countess of Crakentorp (Joy Hermalyn), in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” (Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Director Christian Räth has restaged original director Laurent Pelly’s sleek production to perfection. Set during World War I by designer Chantal Thomas, it offers a minimalist backdrop that provides enough pageantry, flag waving, and colorful uniforms to convey the historical period. And the regiment soldiers, dancing and singing under chorus director Michael Black’s lead, come across as much a character as the rest of the ensemble.

At the opera’s finale, the audience roared and applauded on and on, for what seemed forever, making it one of the longest ovations the Lyric has ever experienced.  A joyful, exuberant evening of pure joy, which probably had the Lyric scratching their heads in wonderment, questioning why they had waited so long to resurrect such a stunning and popular opera.

‘The Daughter of the Regiment’ The Lyric Opera of Chicago 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org Runs: 2 hours, 45 minutes Closes: Nov. 25, 2023
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As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.