When the curtain rises on Donizetti’s frothy comic opera Daughter of the Regiment at Opera in the Heights this week, director JJ Hudson wants audiences to know this: Behind the campy comedy lies a deeper story.
“This is the story of a father—or in this case, several fathers—and the sacrifices they are willing to make for their child.”
The child in the question, the daughter of the title, is Marie, the orphan who’s been adopted by a French army regiment and raised by the men of the unit. And it’s about what happens when she falls madly in love with Tonio, a guy from across the border in Switzerland, and how the regiment dads must decide how to let her grow up and live her life. Into the mix come questions about who Marie really is—and thus where in society she belongs.
“Marie’s adopted the swagger of the soldiers,” explains Hudson. “She’s kind of rough-and-tumble, and she’s charming.” That, he thinks, has led the men to come to think of her as one of the guys, and perhaps their perpetual child. “But through this show, we see her learning to strike out on her own, and the regiment sees that and they have to learn to deal with it all as fathers.”
“Marie isn’t your conventional ingénue,” says Lindsay Nicole Russell, the soprano who sings the title role. “She doesn’t have a ‘proper’ upbringing, and feels uncomfortable in high society with frilly dresses. She loves to have fun, isn’t afraid to rough-house and drink with the boys, and has a crass sense of humor. Despite her non-traditional upbringing, she has strong moral values and is loyal and loving.”
With a score that’s infectious, and music that gallops as much as it sighs, the 1840 opera with a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-George and Jean-François Bayard was initially lambasted by critics, who felt it lacked polish and depth. But it would go on to become hugely popular for its bright effervescence. Sung in French, the one of the opera’s most-known arias is Tonio’s “Ah, mes amis,” where the young man commits his loyalty to the regiment to show how far he’s willing to go to prove his love for Marie. The aria is a demanding one, with its nine high Cs.
“You practice it, and you practice it, and you know you know it,” says tenor Spencer Viator, who sings Tonio. “But you also know people are waiting for it. They’re literally counting, going one, two, three…So, you can’t let that pressure get to you.”
Pressure or not, both Viator and Russell are having a blast working with Opera in the Heights on the show. Viator calls Tonio “a fun character,” and one he’s been wanting to play for a long time. Russell says she’s loving the interaction she gets to have with the men’s chorus.
“It is so fun to develop that story and those relationships on stage,” she says.
“This show is an affirmation of family,” says Hudson. “I think it’s something people can really relate to. It has this beautiful heart in all the comedy. It’s super charming. And when you’ve laughed enough, there’s even a sucker punch.”
Sept. 21–29. Tickets from $40.50. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303. More info and ticket at operaintheheights.org.