Has COVID-19 left you craving comedy? Me, too. How I longed to laugh again in the company of a crowd, even if our facemasks would muffle our snorts and guffaws and remind us that we're still dealing with a pandemic.
And if that laughter is spiced with some magnificent music, outstanding singing and fine stagecraft, then that would be an embarrassment of riches. Indeed, Minnesota Opera's latest production fits that description. An uproariously funny version of Gaetano Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment," it's filled with spectacular singing and loads of expertly executed comedy.
As I departed St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater at evening's end, almost every overheard conversation contained the word "fun," and understandably so, as it overflowed with an infectious feeling of delight.
Donizetti has been a Minnesota Opera staple ever since it pledged allegiance to the "bel canto" style of Italian opera around the turn of this century, but this is the company's first "Daughter of the Regiment." Set during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, it's the tale of a girl raised by a group of soldiers after being left in their care as a baby. Now she's reached adulthood, and changes are afoot: Romance is blossoming with a villager, and some of her mysterious family history is coming to light.
This production's director and choreographer, John de los Santos, seems to have approached almost every scene with the intent of mining it for a gag, in the best possible way. Conductor Kelly Kuo propels the Minnesota Opera Orchestra at a lively pace that serves the comedy well, and rarely will you find a set of leads with such an awe-inspiring combination of singing skills and comic acting chops.
Foremost among them is soprano Vanessa Becerra as the title character, Marie. Hers is a voice of both prettiness and power, whether smoothly sliding into richly forceful high notes or bringing soft subtlety to a heartbroken aria of parting. She's also hilarious, never more so than when reluctantly thrown into a ballet lesson.
Complementing her perfectly is David Portillo as Tonio, her bumbling love interest, employing an elastic face and a pure-toned tenor voice that does wonders with every challenge it encounters, most notably the role's famous series of high C's near the end of the first act.
But the performers who set the comic tone are mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as the melodramatic La Marquise de Birkenfeld and baritone Andrew Wilkowske as Marie's primary parental figure, the supportive pushover, Sergeant Sulpice. They're both scene-stealers, as is Monét X Change, a veteran of "Ru Paul's Drag Race" who does a lot more with the incidental role of La Duchesse de Krakenthorp than customary. And her Trevor Bowen costuming is splendidly imaginative.
All are supported quite well by the orchestra, which drew an enthusiastic ovation when filing into the pit before the performance began. Its musicians are working without a contract, negotiating a new one with Minnesota Opera management and have authorized a strike. No date has been set for a walkout.
Played out on a lovely Boyd Ostroff set full of mountain vistas, this very enjoyable production might be the ideal introduction for anyone new to opera. If it doesn't make you smile, it's likely that no opera will.
Minnesota Opera's 'The Daughter of the Regiment'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $25-$228, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.