The Buxton Festival has often been at its best when it has balanced high drama with comedy in its operatic offerings. This year, with two heavyweight pieces as its in-house productions, it has wisely turned to Jeff Clarke and his Opera della Luna to make up the fun quotient.
They do it splendidly. Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment is a classic light opera, but needs singers of real quality to do it justice. The famous tenor aria with the nine high Cs (‘Ah! mes amis’) is in it, for one thing, and there are some superb soprano showpieces, too, and a clever trio.
But for Opera della Luna adaptation is the name of the game. Clarke has not only got John Longstaff to reduce the score – the chorus is all-male here, and three of the six of them double in other roles – but he’s re-written the book completely.
‘The Regiment’ is no longer a section of the French army operating in the rural Tyrols, but a desert-based Harley-riding biker gang in California, USA, and Sulpice is their president. The Marquise is now Los Angeles based social climber Marsha Berkenfield (she lives in West Hollywood, of course), and the Duchess of Crakentorp is heiress Dulcie Crackenthorpe. Marie, the daughter of the title, is still a lovely girl brought up by the good-hearted guys of The Regiment, and it’s all about her falling for Tonio – now an Hispanic immigrant, rather than a peasant – and then turning out, finally, to be the long unacknowledged daughter of Marsha.
It’s all great fun and very cleverly matches the essence of the original. The dialogue is all-American (and they’ve had dialect coach Matthew Bloxham to help them get it right), and the set (Graham Wynne) looks like an Old El Paso chili chips packet, plus cactuses.
This is a second incarnation for Opera della Luna’s interpretation of the piece, as they did it four years ago for the Iford Festival, but I fancy (from the stills of that version) that this is a fuller staging. And it is a hugely entertaining gem of a show.
What makes it most satisfying is the quality of the singing. Jesús Álvarez has got the top Cs – he doesn’t belt them out like a circus act, rather weaves them into the aria’s melody line, but they’re all there.
And his Marie is Elin Pritchard, both a great comedy actress and a wonderful soprano, who both Opera North’s and Buxton Festival’s audiences know well. Her finale aria to the first act (‘Yes, we must part’) was lovely, and she made a delight of the ‘singing lesson’ in act two (which Clarke transforms to include some neat bowdlerizations beginning ‘I dreamt I dwelt …’ and ‘My tiny hand is …’).
The roles of Sulpice (Charles Johnston) and Marsha (Katharine Taylor-Jones) are character studies above all, but very finely done (and sung) here, and Robert Gildon made Hortensius the butler into a comedy cameo in his own right. Toby Purser conducts the company, and a great little band, with skill.
The Daughter of the Regiment - Jesús Álvarez, Elin Pritchard and Charles Johnston