The first two productions of Opera Saratoga offer you a choice - you can laugh or you can cry. Whichever you choose, you can be sure that you will experience beautiful singing. This season has some of the best voices I’ve heard at the Little Theatre on the grounds of SPAC or anywhere else in many seasons.
The light-hearted entertainment is “Daughter of the Regiment,” a satirical Bel Canto opera by Donizzetti. It has a plot so frothy that it might have you thinking you stumbled into a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
It has to do with an orphaned female raised by a regiment of soldiers, all of whom think of Marie as their daughter. They made her promise when she married it would be someone in the regiment. However, she falls in love with Tonio, a soldier from a different country who saved her life.
Tonio joins the regiment, who learns to approve of him, but a long-lost, very rich aunt shows up and takes her away from her lover. The aunt plans to marry her niece into more money, but ….
But, there is no need to go further. If you can’t figure out what happens you’ve never seen a comic-romance – be it opera, play or film. Without giving anything away it all ends happily-ever-after.
Though it’s easy for the mind to wander with such frail material, it’s not the plot that engages you. It’s the singing, which is magnificent. The production has two leads who will both eventually perform for major opera companies throughout the world.
“Daughter of the Regiment” is famous for the aria “Ah! Mes Amis,” in which Tonio must do the near impossible by hitting nine high C’s. Tenor Santiago Ballerini thrills the audience with his golden tenor making the task look as easy as it is beautiful. He is a phenomenal singer and an engaging presence on stage.
However, Ballerini is not the only awesome singer in the production. Lyric soprano Keely Futterer is, at least his equal – and many might rightfully argue better – since her role is more demanding. Futterer has one of the most gorgeous voices you can imagine with charm to match. Hers is a performance you will remember and speak about for years.
Ellen West is the total opposite of “Daughter of the Regiment.” It is a dark, intense world-premiere about a self-destructive woman who is at war with her body. The central character has for years suffered from anorexia and is also uncertain about her gender identity. She is not a healthy person, physically or mentally.
Composer Rickey Ian Gordon has scored Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Frank Bidart’s long poem about Ellen West to express the pain and mental turmoil of a person who lives with the fear of living. The character not only lacks joy, she lacks a reason to survive in a world in which she feels a stranger.
The story is told with only two voices and both Jennifer Zetlan as the title character and Keith Phares as the Doctor are wonderful. Through Zetlan’s penetrating performance we understand the torments of the doomed Ellen through her songs. The situation is given a further sense of hopelessness through the observations of the doctor treating her.
The work is as tough to embrace as it is beautiful, personal and solitary. It is aloof because the preordained is rarely tragic.
How odd that an opera with a haunting, mesmerizing score is so cold and clinical. Because the two characters never interact, the work is purely expositional in tone. Too, because the end is inevitable, the 80-minute piece lacks conflict, tension and emotional vigor.
Though Ellen West has only two characters there are four people on stage. Director Emma Griffin uses two almost surreal figures dressed as orderlies, to act out the spoken thoughts and add visual interest to the otherwise static presentation.
In contrast Lawrence Edelson works hard to make “Daughter of the Regiment” play big in a small space. A visually interesting set design by Cameron Anderson forces most of the action to be played on the apron, so the director’s assignment to make small look big is not always successful. However, he does add some clever bits and funny staging, which help to maintain your interest, until the next musical number appears.
The Opera Saratoga season ends July 14. For tickets and schedule information call 518-584-6018 or go to operasaratoga.org