Friday, October 23, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "La fille du regiment"

Oct. 19, 2009

The co-production idea is reaching extreme proportions these days, as a production that has already seen New York, London and Vienna touches down in San Francisco. The show is comically brilliant, highlighted by the physical humor of soprano Diana Damrau and the inventive direction of Laurent Pelly.

Although the stated influences are Laurel and Hardy, Damrau's performance is distinctly Carol Burnett, a combination of ragged red hair, the willingness to be homely and unladylike (apropos for a girl raised by soldiers) and absolute fearlessness. In Act I, she laments her agreement to marry a member of the regiment then runs to a pile of laundry and dumps herself on top of it, leaving her butt straight up in the air. During the infamous music lesson in Act II, Damrau sees her prim white dress as no obstacle to falling directly on the self-same body part, creating a priceless image of frustration.

The bonus is Damrau's voice, which shimmers in the high pianissimos like a diamond, particularly in her touching farewell to the regiment, "Il faut partir" (the aria reminds me of "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'Elisir d'amore," both of them surprising passages of pathos in the midst of absurd farces). Her many cadenzas are as agile as gymnasts, and she has an uncanny sense for using the standard facial movements of vocal production to accentuate the current physical gag.

Juan Diego Florez lives up to every bit of his reputation as the hapless lover Tonio. Florez emanates an everyman charm, and delivers all nine high C's of the call to arms "Pour mon ame/Qual destino" with incredible ease. Meredith Arwady, a rookie alumna of SFO's Merola Program, gives a masterfully comic performance of the mezzo role, the Marquise of Berkenfeld, lending immediate pizzazz to the opening barricade scene and throwing a few Victor Borge tricks into her piano playing in the priceless music-lesson scene. Bass-baritone Bruno Pratico gives the captain, Sulpice, an amiable presence, and mezzo Sheila Nadler is just a rip and a half as the Duchess of Krakenthorp.

Chantal Thomas's set design is absolutely fascinating, a regimental encampment built on a smattering of gigantic maps, followed by a tilt-a-whirl music parlor balanced precariously on those same maps, rolled up. Pelly and choreographer Karine Girard augment the action with three priceless dance scenes: a waltz of clothesline long-johns (or perhaps a can-can), a ballet of suspiciously hairy housemaids, and an entrance minuet of fantastically crotchety senior citizens. And kudos to the SFO chorus, which excels in these scenes and with the rapscallious gents of the regiment.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Diana Damrau as Marie. Photo by Cory Weaver

"Yeah, Donizett does all light stuff, right? Just like Gilbert & Sullivan."
--overheard in the parking garage, a lady who has apparently not seen "Lucia di Lammermoor"

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