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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Opera Review: Promotion Commotion

La Fille du régiment marches on at the Met.
The conquering tenor: Lawrence Brownlee
in Act I of La fille du régiment. 
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Ever since its premiere in 2008, Laurent Pelly's cheerful production of Donizetti's La Fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) has been a showcase for young singers of bel canto repertory with something to prove. On the Monday, December 19 performance, the role of Tonio is taken by American singer Lawrence Brownlee, a versatile tenor with good comic timing, boundless energy and a mustard-keen stage presence.

Mr. Brownlee has sung this role before at the Met, but this is the first run of La Fille that has him as the unquestioned leading man. He handled all of the challenges of this role, from looking good in lederhosen to hitting nine high C's in rapid succession in the aria "Ah mes amis." 

This is the aria that made the reputation of Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego-Flórez at the Met. In conquering its nine peaks, Mr. Brownlee displayed formidable talent and a total lack of fear. His performance was stellar, met with a rousing "bravo!" from the upper reaches of the house. (No, it wasn't me.)

The singer also showed his ability to form and mold a long bel canto line in his Act II aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie." He was aided by tactful suppor from the orchestra and conductor Yves Abel. Throughout Mr. Abel  and the crack Met band showed expert command of this opera's peculiar blend of French and Italian idioms, military rhythms and propulsive, memorable choruses.

Nino Machaidze is another bel canto singer on her way up. The Georgian soprano made her house debut last season in the second cast of Rigoletto. Her take on Marie is less fiery than Diana Damrau's but just as compelling with passionate singing and vocal acrobatics. She came into her own when Marie was awkwardly forced into a dress in the opera's second act. Singing stunning fioratura and broad-stroke physical comedy, Ms. Machaidze won the favor of the house.

Sergeant Sulpice is not the most interesting comic baritone role, but Maurizio Muraro made the most of the career military man who looks at Marie as just one of the character's twenty-six surrogate fathers, all heavily armed. He provided able support in the Act II trio, riding an arc from stern military taskmaster to a fatherly figure for Marie. James Courtney had a short but funny turn as the butler Hortensius.

This fighting Donizetti battalion had big guns in the second act, in the form of he two noblewomen who are trying to marry Marie off. As the opera turned into a comedy of class warfare, the comic energy jumped. This was chiefly due to the performance of Ann Murray as the Marquise of Berkenfield, ultimately revealed to be the heroine's mother. She was particularly marvelous in the lesson scene, when an attempt to teach Marie to sing a classical aria was interrupted by a raucous military Rataplan.

Even better was the return of Dame Kiri te Kanawa as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a grand dame part that lets the New Zealand-born soprano simply take over the house. For her solo number at the start of the second act, Dame Kiri chose Puccini's "O fior del giorno" from the composer's rarely played early opera Edgar. Her scream at the end of the opera and sudden exit almost managed to upstage the leads. Almost.

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