There is always a different flavor to the opera when a choreographer is in charge, in this case Sean Curran at Pittsburgh Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment. Maybe it’s because his mind’s eye sees the outcome through a different artistic lens.
Curran is hardly a stranger to the dance community here (Pittsburgh Dance Council, Dance Alloy and Point Park University among them). But in this highly entertaining Regiment, he was wearing another hat (and apparently sporting a spiffy handlebar mustache), that of director.
He had choreographed the Santa Fe Opera version. But because of the nature of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, bursting with physical potential, it was a logical choice for him to stage/direct here in Pittsburgh. So he set about using his three male dancer/soldiers and three female dancer/peasants/ballerinas in a clever fashion, strategically placing them to lead the choral ensemble through more complex than normal choreography (Michele de la Reza of Attack Theater was associate choreographer).
Daughter’s heroine, Marie, was found abandoned on a battlefield as a baby and was adopted by a regiment of soldiers. She grew up with unbridled spunk and nary a feminine grace or wile, but fell for the love-struck Tonio, who joins the regiment just to be near her.
Of course love has to find things to conquer and Marie is spirited away by her rich “aunt” to be “refined.” We all know that they will win out in the end, but how will the lovers get there?
A good amount of artifice was involved, given the candy-coated costumes and a snazzy coloring-book Alpine cyclorama with hidden entrances and exits. There were super-titles, even though the opera was spoken and sung in English.
Why not take things to the extreme? Donizetti provided plenty of vocal calisthenics for lyric coloratura Lisette Oropesa (it was a signature role for all-time great Joan Sutherland) and one of opera’s most exciting arias, Ah, mes amis, resplendent with high “C’s” for rising star Lawrence Brownlee and the pinnacle of this production.
But these two (and the rest of the cast) were obviously open, to their credit, for some tongue-in-cheek comedy and physical calisthenics from Curran, making this Daughter of the Regiment a visual as well as aural feast. It was hard to believe that the petite Oropesa, in particular, was as active as she was — the strapping tomboyish stride, being lifted onto a bench in the middle of an aria — while negotiating her vocal minefield.
She also was asked to don a tutu and floral headpiece, ala Edgar Degas’ famous ballet paintings, plus combat boots in a hilarious ballet lesson. That scene signaled a slapstick surge to the finish, with the entire cast throwing aside all operatic caution and whisking the audience through references to Pittsburgh, Paris of the Allegheny to a ribald conclusion.
Opera should be epic, whether musically, dramatically, theatrically or, in this instance, visually. And for a generation brought up on television, Broadway and the Internet, this Daughter of the Regiment signaled a way to not only attract new audiences but tickle the fancy of established operatic fans.