Review: Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston Grand Opera “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007

Houston Grand Opera’s second production of its 2007-08 season was its first mounting of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” since Beverly Sills performed Marie in 1973. Much has changed in the ensuing 34 years. Ironically, both Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, the greatest Tonio of the 20th century – probably, the greatest of all time – passed on, respectively near the beginning and the end of 2007’s summer. And the Marie who is most associated with Pavarotti’s Tonio, Joan Sutherland, retired from opera at a point midway between Sills’ Houston Marie and the current Houston production of “Fille”.

Sills, Pavarotti and Sutherland each contributed to the Donizetti revival of the last four and a third decades of the 20th century, and were all extraordinarily important in the contemporary performance history of Donizetti’s great French-language comic opera. There well could be great commercial recordings of “Fille” in the future, but none will supplant Decca’s Sutherland-Pavarotti recording, so enriched by Richard Bonynge’s conducting and musical scholarship.

That said, should we assume that all the epochs of great performances of this work are behind us, and what we have now is a pale shadow of what went before? As a witness to a reasonably large sample of live operatic performances by Sills (including the role of Marie), Pavarotti, Sutherland and Bonynge (no live performance of “Fille”, regrettably, for the latter three), I can testify that there are contemporary performances that rise to (and, perhaps, occasionally exceed) the standards these incomparable artists set.

One such performance was the opening night of Houston’s “Fille”. Several artists can be said to have had personal triumphs that night, all of which unquestionably helped advance careers already on a rapid rise. I spent a few moments trying to decide whom to mention first, and decided it should be Ewa Podles. The remarkable Polish singer not only can lay claim to the seemingly extinct vocal category of true contralto, but, in addition, is a consummate operatic artist, an accomplished actor in opera’s serious roles, and a superb commedienne as well.

[Below: Tonio (Barry Banks) performs the showstopper, Ah Mes Amis!; edited image, based on Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

The Tonio, English leggiero tenor Barry Banks, does not sound like Pavarotti did when he performed this and other Donizetti roles in the 1960s. Banks has a much lighter voice, yet his instrument effortlessly handles the pyrotechnics of the cascade of memorable songs we lump under the title of “Ah! mes amis” (including the string of high C’s in “Pour mon ame”) and the intensely lyrical legato of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie”.

Banks is sharing the role of Tonio next Spring at the Met with tenor Juan Diego Florez, already a matinee idol, who seems on his way to superstar status. Having heard both of them in recent months, it seems to me that a Met subscriber need not fret about having one, rather than the other, on their performance night.

An important part of Laura Claycomb’s operatic training took place at the San Francisco Opera where I am a subscriber. Thus, I had seen her in several smaller roles before her successful appearance as Zerbinetta in the 2003 San Francisco Opera producton of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. Claycomb was invited by the Houston Opera to write a tribute to Sills for their opera program. She described Sills’ voice as “silvery with an agility that boggles the mind, with high notes that spun, shimmered and hovered over you”.

Indeed, all of these traits were often present in Sills’ performances, but it is one of the tragedies of the past few decades that Sills did not achieve her deserved fame until she was in her early 40s. Opera impresarios in the 1950s were not impressed with sopranos without long European performance resumes, and gave little slack to a married American singer raising two special needs children. Therefore, by the time most of us began to hear Sills’ spinning, shimmering and hovering high notes regularly, she was having increasing difficulty producing them consistently in every performance.

If we count her “discovery” in New York City Opera’s 1966 production of Haendel’s “Julius Caesar” as the beginning of the career as international star, then she had only 14 performance years as a “famous” singer before her farewell in San Diego Opera’s production of Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” in 1980. By the time of her retirement, her legato proved very difficult for her to sustain. In a coloratura piece, such as Rosina in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” as late as 1978, you could hear Sills’ greatness, but by the late 1970s it was clear her great years were behind her.

This does not mean that the ebullient Sills personality and acting ability did not bring joy to the audiences, including those who knew her better work, nor does one regret that she finally enjoyed the fame and recognition for her hard work and great artistry. If there is any criticism, it is that her talents were not utilized by the opera impresarios and classical record companies in the 1950s, when all of her vocal powers were intact.

We can look back now on what to artists like Sills seemed to be a vicious circle. Opera audiences wanted to see “name” singers. Those were the singers who sang in new productions at the leading houses and were cast in full length opera recordings. But you were not cast in new productions or opera recordings unless you were a name singer.

Now, three or four decades later, there seem to some to be fewer “name” singers, in the way that a few dozen opera recording artists of the 1950s through 1970s were name singers. But this does not mean that there are not great opera singers whose performances should be cherished.

[Below: Marie (Laura Claycomb) salutes the regiment as she departs with the Marquise (Ewa Podles); edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

Podles is certainly one. Another is Claycomb. She has vivacity, charm and beauty, acting ability, shimmering legato, and a silvery coloratura that should be recognized throughout the world. Perhaps she will be considered a superstar soon, or late in her career like Sills, or not at all. But her performances should be sought out by those who cherish the coloratura soprano voice in its prime. (I already have made plans to see her in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in May 2008.)

There is much else to praise in the Houston production. The conductor, Riccardo Frizza, debuting in Houston, is the excellent young conductor who has taken on responsibility for his generation for a sizable repertoire of bel canto operas. My review of his conducting of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” at Washington National Opera may be found in this website’s July 2006 archives. Hailing from a Lombard town only a half hour’s train ride from Donizetti’s beautiful home town of Bergamo, Frizza clearly relishes leading the return of Donizetti’s great comic work to East Texas.

Frizza was the collaborator with Director Emilio Sagi when this production first premiered at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. Sagi, a review of whose production of Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda” at Los Angeles Opera is found in our July 2007 archives, time-shifted and relocated the opera’s action from early 19th century Tyrol to a small town in France during World War II. More often than not, time-shifting an operatic story creates a muddle, rather than amplifying or drawing insight from the original story.

But sometimes the time-shift works. If in 1840, the significance of an Italian composer (himself an Austrian citizen as a result of Austria’s territorial sovereignty over Lombardy) writing a French comic opera about French soldiers in Austria was obvious or humorous, much of that is lost in the 21st century. In the case of the Sagi-Frizza relocation of “Le Fille” to a town in Southern France, beginning to breathe after liberation from Vichy France, it is pure fun.

The Ken Burns documentary on World War II, whose vast sweep includes recounts of American soldiers’ adventures in France, is currently popular. The student of opera will have seen pictures of Lily Pons, the 1940s leading Marie, in her Daughter of the Regiment uniform, doing double paradiddles on her snare-drum, and selling War Bonds for Free France.

[Below: Marie (Laura Claycomb) promoting Franco-American relations during World War II; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

Thus, France seems an entirely natural setting for the comic opera plot of a lost daughter of an unsanctioned liaison between a noble lady and an army captain. (And since American soldiers and French nobility co-existed in Southern France in both the First and Second World Wars, the backstory for the transplantation is even slightly plausible.)

[Below: Sergeant Sulpice (Bruno Pratico) draws the attention and interest of the Marquise (Ewa Podles); edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

No American and no Frenchman is likely to have any problem with the hilarious but lovable 21 men of the 21st American regiment, led by the wise and funny Sergeant Sulpice (nicely done by Bruno Pratico) in the French town in which they find themselves, nor with Marie and the entire regiment once an act leading into a rousing Salute to France!

The Sagi production has two sets. The first act takes place in the bar in which the frightened French population has taken refuge; the second in the elegant provincial Berkenfield home of the Marquise. Both sets share an interior space, which have in their background, a row of windows through which activity occurring on the outside can be seen, setting up comic situations – in the second act, even a series of running gags. But the greatest opportunities for comedy are afforded when Podles’ Marquise is present.

She draws the first laughs and the first ovation from the enchanted Houston audience. Accompanied by her assistant Hortensius (another notable comprimario role by Liam Bonner), she joins the chorus in the rousing “Pour une femme de mon nom”, deploring the disinterest of soldiers at war in maintaining the proper etiquette towards a region’s resident nobility.

But once into the second act, where we are transported into the Marquise’s world, Podles is unleashed. As she prepares for Marie’s singing lesson, Podles launches into Ulrica’s incantation from Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”, to which Hortensius/Bonner remarks that “Masked Ball” was presented the previous night. (In fact, Houston Grand Opera did perform the Verdi opera the night before, with Podles in great form as Ulrica. A review of that performance appears on this website at Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.)

[Below: Marie (Laura Claycomb), left, sings with the Marquise (Ewa Podles) to the amusement of Hortensius (Liam Bonner); edited image, based of an Andrew Cloud photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

Counseled to sing something less overdramatic, Podles sings the first verse of the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen”.

The singing lesson itself provides a further showcase for the brilliance of Claycomb’s coloratura technique, as well as her ability to match Podles’ comic talents. Her reluctant response to the Marquise’s pedantic musical drills, for example, does homage to the scene in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” in which the doll Olympia winds down.

[Below: left, Sergeant Sulpice (Bruno Pratico) confers with Marie (Laura Claycomb) and Hortensius (Liam Bonner) confers with the Marquise (Ewa Podles, while two servants, center  confer on their plans after work; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

Further comic high jinks are afforded by the Marquise’s wacky group of servants, including two manservants obviously attracted to each other, two gardeners whom we see clipping hedges through the windows when they are not doubling as valets, and a French maid who consumes the entire tray of drinks she is to supposed to serve to the Marquise’s noble guests.

[Below: Hortensius (Liam Bonner) announces the arrival of East Texas nobility, including the Comte and Comtesse of Waco; edited image, based on Brett Coomer photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

Those guests, to the delight of the Houston audience, are announced as the Comte and Comtesse of Waco, the Marquis and Marquise of Katy with their daughter Katie, and similar allusions to communities in their region.

Of course, in true comic opera spirit, the cavalry (in this case, the 21st Regiment) arrives to save the day, to assure Marie’s marriage to Tonio based on love, rather than an arranged marriage for no other purpose than assuring Marie’s rank in the French peerage. (The Marquise is rich anyway, and, I imagine, it saves her having to come up with a dowry.) There is little doubt that in addition to a happy ending for Tonio and Marie, that Sergeant Sulpice himself will end up with a very wealthy war bride.

This was the third of the three most popular Donizetti comedies that I have reviewed for my current Donizetti Quest (described elsewhere on the website). Both the Paris production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” and the Houston presentation of Sagi’s production of “La Fille du Regiment” are testimony that the current world standard for the comic masterpieces of Gaetano Donizetti is very high.

The previous comic operas reviewed as part of the “In Quest of Donizetti” series are the following:

Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007

No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007