Bel canto is Italian for "pretty singing." The three masters of the bel canto era, Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, composed operas featuring arias that allowed lead singers to embellish their parts by holding notes, adding notes, stringing together improvised notes between the written ones or goosing a note up or down the scale. Opera singers who love to show off their instrument, art or technique adore bel canto. So do many opera fans.
The story of Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, part of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2011 season, revolves around Marie, an orphan raised by a group of loving and surprisingly fatherly French soldiers. She falls in love with Tonio, a peasant, finds out her real mother is a marquise, is offered in marriage to a duke by the marquise but in the end is allowed to marry her true love. There are no surprises here, but plenty of room for Donizetti and librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard to create pretty love paeans, sad parting songs and joyous reunion ditties. OTSL's cast takes full advantage of them all.
As Marie, Ashley Emerson uses her lovely soprano to make creative use of Donizetti's melodies and have fun with the freedom they allow. She understands when to grab center stage with a finely crafted vocal run, but she knows to stay in character and context while pulling it off. As the tomboy trying to learn to be a refined lady, Emerson seizes every opportunity for physical humor as she pratfalls and mugs her way through the evening.
Tonio is the role that made Luciano Pavarotti famous. One of Tonio's arias calls for the tenor to sing a series of nine high C's — a difficult and punishing feat. So utterly effortlessly did René Barbera render this section that if you weren't on the lookout for it, it was just another patch of gorgeous melody. Barbera's velvety, facile voice danced through the rest of the score with equal ease.
Dale Travis plays Suplice, leader of the regiment, with mature assurance and a silky, authoritative bass-baritone. He's by far the best actor onstage, gliding through the silliness with a rascally twinkle in his eyes. Sylvia McNair, who started at OTSL in 1983 and went on to become one of opera's most popular stars, turns in a unique cameo as the Duchess of Crackentorp. In a bit of business contrived especially for her, McNair turns in a hilarious singing monologue filled with vocal comedy and sly references to her career, its critics and the opera world in general.
Stage director Seán Curran mounted OTSL's complex and stunning drama Salome, last season's best production and quite possibly the theater company's best staging yet. This time he proves himself deft and light-handed with comedy. Curran is primarily a choreographer, and it shows. Human traffic swirls and darts on his often crowded stage to excellent comedic effect. He uses the fifteen soldiers of "The Regiment" exceptionally well. They move at times with farcical precision and at others add a nice touch of anarchy to the mob of characters onstage. Curran also has created a slapstick ballet lesson for Marie that opens the second act. Conducting his first opera, Kirkwood High grad John McDaniel (class of '79), former bandleader for The Rosie O'Donnell Show, adeptly oversaw the seamless melding of music and voice.
Beautifully sung, artfully staged, frothy and entertaining, OTSL's new production of The Daughter of the Regiment is the opera equivalent of what Hollywood likes to call a "date movie." So bring a friend.