This production of Gaetano Donizetti's 1840 comedy The Daughter of the Regiment is a complete blast and the perfect way for Seattle Opera to open its 50th anniversary season. The leads, Lawrence Brownlee (and, for two performances only, Andrew Stenson) as Tonio and Sarah Coburn as Marie, are alumni of the Seattle Young Artists program, which, since its beginning in l998, has become essential for finding, training, and encouraging the next generation of opera makers. If Seattle continues to help create artists of this caliber for the next 50 years, we'll be the next Naples, Milan, New York. People and whatever will be rocketing in from Mars to see opera will come here.
The Daughter of the Regiment tells the story of Marie, an apparently orphaned tomboy who is found on a battlefield (this production is set in France in the l940s), gets raised by a regiment, falls in love with a civilian named Tonio, and is "adopted" against her will by a wealthy marquise (Joyce Castle, hilariously channeling a tweed-encased Margaret Thatcher) who wants to turn the tomboy into a "lady." This being a comic opera, the lovers are brought together despite what's trying to keep them apart, the proud are humbled, the chilly are warmed by love, and though the whole thing takes place during war, no one gets killed. As happens a lot in opera, there's play with class: The rich folks' homes are built on lies; the not-rich folks both serve and parody the pretensions of the rich. There's also play with gender roles: The girl is scrappy, foul-mouthed, and hot; the boy is tender, sweet, and short and, at one point, wears minor nurse drag (a hat with a red cross).
Full drag is saved for the final scene when Seattle Opera stalwart Peter Kazaras (a very large, usually bearded man who has sung such sturdy tenor roles as Loge in Das Rhinegold and Herod in Salome) plays the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Kazaras doesn't mince or resort to any cheap affect of "femaleness." He plays the role, well, straight as a kind of in-her-mind-formidable-but-actually-down-at-the-heel Lady Bracknell. The upper-class action is shadowed by a silent but guffaw-inducing Robert Mead as a servant with a wonderfully Chaplin-esque plasticity of body. In fact, take your binoculars. Emilio Sagi's direction is full of perfect, smart visuals, and you'll want to catch the details: Brownlee's face as he listens, Coburn's pseudo-smile for her ridiculously pompous "Aunt" Berkenfield, Stenson's comic-book-wide frightened eyes—and on the serious side, the chiaroscuro of the painting-still soldiers at a bar, contemplating the loss of their much-loved daughter.
The Sunday I attended was "family day," a new Seattle Opera program designed to introduce kids, with their parents, to opera. The kids around me giggled at the funny parts and didn't shuffle around in the sad parts. With the Young Artists Program helping create the future of opera, these young audience members are helping create the next generation of opera fans. Seattle Opera is getting it right in so many ways.