Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pistol-packin' mama

Erica Cochran as Marie
What: Donizetti's La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)
Where: Union Avenue Opera
When: July 30 through August 8, 2010

Union Avenue Opera is one of the hidden gems of the local musical theatre scene. Their productions may sometimes be a bit rough around the edges and their theatre in the remodeled sanctuary of the Union Avenue Christian Church may have its acoustic and sight line issues, but their artistic commitment and professionalism are beyond reproach. The second production of their 2010 season, Donizetti’s 1840 romantic opéra-comique romp La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment), is a truly charming piece of work with a pair of leads that I’d put up against anyone on the Opera Theatre of St. Louis stage.

The circumstances that led Donizetti to write a French romantic comedy were, ironically, less than joyous. His wife Virginia died in 1837 and the broken-hearted composer fled Italy for Paris where, as historian Herbert Weinstock notes, “he began a new life”. Originally written as a quick replacement for a delayed opera by another composer, La fille was initially greeted with indifference by the Parisian public and hostility by Berlioz (then music critic for the Journal des débats). Audiences quickly came around, however, and over the years the title role has become a favorite of high-flying sopranos from Jenny Lind to Joan Sutherland.

The titular daughter, Marie, is a war orphan adopted as a baby by the rather tender hearted French soldiers of the 21st Regiment. Now a beauty with the voice of an angel and a colorful military vocabulary, she loves and is loved by Tonio, who saved her from toppling off an Alp. Their love is opposed initially by her guardian, Sergeant Sulpice, and the other soldiers (who mistake Tonio for a spy) and then by the snobbish Marquise de Birkenfeld who, in a classic comic opera revelation, turns out to be Marie’s long-lost mother. All ends happily, of course, with plenty of rousing ensembles and solo vocal fireworks along the way.

Although still in the early stages of her career, soprano Erica Cochran, as Marie, shows a mastery of comic timing and a light, nimble voice that would do credit to a more experienced singer. Coloratura and comedy are difficult enough individually; in combination they can be a major challenge, but Ms. Cochran excels at both.

Tenor Gregory Schmidt looks, to my eyes, a bit too mature for the role of Tonio, but once he begins to sing all other considerations become secondary. History tells us that the original 1840 Tonio, Mécène Marié de l'Isle, had pitch problems. Had Mr. Schmidt lived back then history would have a different story to tell. His instrument is clear, accurate, and seamless throughout the role’s rather high tessitura. Opera audience love to hear a tenor bounce high Cs off the back wall and Mr. Schmidt has a head voice that can do just that. The opening night audience couldn’t get enough of it, applauding with gusto after his bravura air “Pour mon âme”— a song reckoned to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire.

Baritone David Dillard sings the buffo role of Sulpice with appropriate comic gusto and blends nicely with Ms. Cochran and Mr. Schmidt in their trios (“Tous les trios réunis” being the outstanding example). Contralto Dixie Roberts is also impeccably funny as the self-consciously upper crust Marquise and while she only gets one really solid air to herself - “Pour une femme d mon nom” in the first scene - she delivers it in fine style. Director Jolly Stewart has a nice comic cameo turn in the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp and E. Scott Levin displays his substantial comic skills as the harassed butler Hortensius.

There’s no chorus master listed, so I’m not sure whom to congratulate for the fine sound of the ensemble. I can say that conductor Kostis Protopapas does a nice job with the reduced orchestra in what has always seemed to me to be a rather challenging acoustic environment. Director Stewart has, to my taste, given a bit too much stage business to her performers—comedy doesn’t necessarily require that the actors be in constant movement—but most of it works well enough.

There were some intonation issues and lighting problems on opening night and not all the ensemble members seemed equally invested in their roles, but those are minor complaints. The bottom line is that Union Avenue Opera’s La fille du régiment is a solid production of a lively and tuneful score by one of the masters of bel canto. You couldn’t ask for a better break from the oppressive heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer. Note that if you don't arrive on time to park in the church's small lot, the Metro Psychiatric Hospital next door allows audience members to park there as well.

It has been said, by the way, that interest in La fille du régiment tends to rise during wartime, given the libretto’s enthusiastic embrace of all things military. As someone who has lived in a world perpetually at war his entire life, I’m not wholly convinced of that correlation. To me, the backdrop of protracted conflict had rather the opposite effect, casting emotional shadows that were probably not part of the intention of authors Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it seem to me that (to liberally paraphrase Milton) darkness need not be visible to discover regions of sorrow where peace and rest can never dwell.

Performances of La fille du régiment continue through August 8th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union in the Central West End. For more information, you may call 314-361-2881 or visit the web site at The opera is sung in French with projected English supertitles easily visible from nearly all of the house.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sweetest Sounds

The view from our balcony performance space
It was, as you may recall, the Red Queen who – in Through the Looking Glass – noted that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. It's a “slow sort of country” that runs otherwise, she opined.

Put me down for a slow sort of country, if you please. Lately just falling slightly behind has got me winded; Her Rosy Highness would have lapped me several times although, of course, she'd probably be moving backwards. I'd be tempted to think I'm moving backwards too if a daily look in the mirror didn't confirm that time does, in fact, march on.

All of which is a convoluted way of explaining why I haven't updated this blog in so long. Real life gets in the way of blogging (which is one reason for approaching blogs with caution).

There is, for example, the fact that I'm presenting a return engagement of my critically-acclaimed cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight – the Golden Age of Vaudeville this Saturday, July 24th, at 8 PM in the cool confines of the Kranzberg Arts Center. I'm running the show pretty much every night to keep it sharp and to correct things that I didn't like the first time around. I've also been doing my utmost to promote it – trying to cross the intersection of Art and Commerce without getting nailed by a distracted driver, so to speak. Get yer red-hot tickets at, at 314-725-4200 ext. 10 or at the door.

And then there's the new cabaret series for which I'm service as MC/director/talent wrangler. It's called Cabaret at the Café, the café in question being Café Cioccolato at 816 Olive here in downtown St. Louis. The space is a combination bar, chocolate show and art gallery with an intimate balcony performing space at the back. Very classy. This is, as far as I know, the first downtown cabaret series in town and if our first show on July 17th was any indication, it's going to be a hit.

We had a powerhouse sextet of performers: Debbie Schuster, Robert Breig, Ken Haller, Katie McGrath, Anna Blair and Jeff Wright. Carol Schmidt was our music director and backup vocalist, a role I'm hoping she'll be able to play for the series as a whole. Our next show is on Friday, September 10th, with future shows planned for October and December – possibly a Christmas-themed show for that one.

This is all very exciting, so even if I am running to stay in place, it seems worth it. St. Louis, as I have noted earlier, is exploding with cabaret talent these days. As with the local theatre scene, there are too many fine performers chasing too few spaces. The addition of Café Cioccolato to the list comes not a moment too soon.

More to come.