Energetic performances and a fizzing production were entirely in sync with Donizetti’s comic gem, bringing the audience along with them, just for laughs.
A little military music starts the evening, given requisite bombast and humour from the conductor Robert Dean, who seemed to have the orchestra on manoeuvres all night.
If a comic opera is going to work at all it has to be funny from the off, and this one was.
The plot, nutshelled: Marie was found by a regiment when she was a baby, and they brought her up to be an unsweetened but sterling young woman. She falls in love with a man who joins the regiment in order to marry her, but she is promised to another man (stop yawning). She is taken away from the regiment by her mother (though she thinks she’s her aunt) to be taught the ways of the upper crust. She eventually ends up with the man she loves.
Sarah Pring, as the posh aunt/mother, was the first to pipe-up. Not what you’d call a gorgeous voice, but such a treat to watch because she really can act. She didn’t do anything spectacular, it was just that every movement she made came from the music, and fed straight back into the character.
The next big news was when Hye-Youn Lee came on stage as Marie. What a joy to hear a singer in full command of her voice! She was totally secure, with her quick vibrato ringing as true as a bell. She could also act, being a convincing tomboy with the garons one minute, and genuinely fragile the next.
Her love interest, Tonio (played by Luciano Botelho), followed soon after; he can obviously sing but he lacks the sort of magnetism that you’d want in a leading man. Maybe he didn’t identify with the role, or was it that Hye-Youn Lee just out-shone him? For his high-wire vocal act (nine high C’s) in “Ah! Mes amis, quell jour de fete!” he could have done with a safety net, though he did survive the stunt unscathed.
The set was simple, modern and attractive, and occasionally was the cause of some (deliberate) mirth. I don’t know if it was historically accurate for the French officers to dress like quality street wrappers, but it certainly looked good. Even the chorus’ acting was good – so earnest in their silliness that they were funny without having to over-do it.
Operas from the 1800s are usually a bit repetitive, and need some “off centre action” to keep momentum going, and this was achieved with expertly daft behaviour diverting the eye, but never distracting it.
The best moment of the night was when Marie was trying to sing prettily for the Marquise (though starting brilliantly out of tune) while the comically gifted Sulpice, played by Graeme Broadbent, put her off and coaxed her into singing the old song from her days at the regiment. Brilliantly choreographed and performed with natural aplomb.
The spoken French wasn’t exactly exquisite, but so what? A rousing evening.