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Donizetti comes to Union Avenue, to be followed by Tchaikovsky

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2010 - The vocally challenging and fun-filled "La Fille du Regiment" by Donizetti will be taking the stage at Union Avenue Opera.  Then, starting Aug. 20, the atmosphere turns much darker with Tchaikovsky’s three-act tragedy “Pikovaya Dama.”

Daughter of the Regiment

Donizetti’s "La Fille du Régiment," demands extravagant acrobatic vocal tricks of its leads. Donizetti was a hard task master known for his florid notes, which were the fashion of his day, the 1840s. Donizetti gave the tenor High Cs -- nine times. That vocal challenge is one of the best known in the tenor opera repertory.

In Italian opera houses, we’ve heard one or two audience members count those Cs aloud while German (or Austrian) tourists more loudly shushed them.

The Italian composer was living in Paris when he wrote this opera in French for his French audience at its world premiere there. Union Avenue Opera cast will sing in French. Later, as was common in the 19th century, the Italian composer helped an Italian librettist adapt it in Italian for his homeland’s audiences. The British also did an English version.

Kostis Protopapas, who conducted the company’s “Lakme” production last year, returns to conduct the bel canto opera. Its stage director is Jolly Stewart, the company’s principal staff stage director. The former opera singer retired in May as director of the Washington University Opera in its Performing Arts Department.

“La Fille du Régiment,” set in the Swiss Tyrol in the early 19th century, begins with worried Swiss including an elegant Marquise praying before a shrine to Mary. The French have defeated their army. However, nothing grim is ahead, just comedy.

No one is more excited by the battle’s victory than the orphan Marie, coloratura soprano Erica Cochran. Years before, she was found alone near a Swiss battlefield and adopted by the 21st Regiment of Grenadiers. She grew up learning to play with drum sticks, wearing a skirted version of the grenadiers’ uniform. The French soldiers are led by Sgt. Sulpice, bass David Dillard, who returns to Union Avenue Opera after last summer's success singing Nilakantha in “Lakmé.”

Tonio, tenor Gregory Schmidt, a young Swiss peasant saved Marie from falling over a cliff and became her hero. That’s reason for beautiful love songs. Sulpice and the other regimental “fathers" long ago said she could only marry a member of the 21st. So, the Swiss Tonio signs up. Marie celebrates his induction by trilling the opera’s best known aria “Chacun le sait, chacun le dit.” ("Everyone knows it, everyone says it.”)

The couple’s fate changes before the end of the first act when the Marquise Birkenfeld, soprano Dixie Roberts, asks the regiment for safe passage through its conquered territory. Soldiers notice that her last name is the same as the one on papers that were with found with Marie. The marquise takes Marie to her castle to be educated as a noblewoman and begins matchmaking. Another surprise leads to joyful songs that may have the audience humming on the way out.

Gambling with Tchaikovsky

Union Avenue Opera’s third production is Tchaikovsky’s three-act tragedy “Pikovaya Dama” (“The Queen of Spades”) sung in Russian. Opera lovers who were moved by the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” last month at Opera Theatre of St. Louis or in 2003 at Union Avenue may want to see this opera, a musical bookend.

Tim Ocel is stage director for this tale about two compulsive gamblers: an ever-winning aging countess, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Stearman and young army officer Herman, tenor Mathew Edwardsen. Ocel, a Minnesota native now based in St. Louis, directs opera and theater nationally and is known here for directing “Carmen,” “La Boheme” and “Armida” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

The opera is set in St. Petersburg where the opera had its 1890 premiere. The great symphony and ballet composer wrote 10 operas but today only “Pikovaya Dama” and “Eugene Onegin” are presented often outside Russia. Both operas are based on stories by Pushkin and feature a cad.

The opera opens with friends talking about how their Herman is a compulsive gambler. They worry that he seems so blue. Herman explains that he has fallen in love with a young woman but does not even know her name. Coincidently Prince Yeletsky, sung by baritone Jordan Shanahan, sings about his happiness over becoming engaged to Lisa, sung by soprano Sylvia Stoner. The prince points her out to Herman. Lisa is Herman’s secret crush.

Later, Herman, a compulsive gambler hears that Lisa’s grandmother has been so successful at cards that she is called the Queen of Spades. This elderly gambler had “magic” information about three cards that was her “payment” for a liaison years before. Secret doors open, a gun fires, and a ghost haunts. The opera’s famous lyric “Unlucky in love, lucky at cards” unravels.

“This is one of the darkest operas, we’ve done,” Schoonover said. “Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful, but it is a risk.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who writes regularly on opera and other topics for the Beacon.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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