For this year’s requisite dose of comedy, Fort Worth Opera went with Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, a mid-19th-century bel canto piece about a young orphan girl who is raised by a ragtag group of soldiers in The Grand Army of Napoleon and falls in love with a peasant boy. Originally written in French (La fille du régiment), the opéra comique — different from opera buffa in ways that are important only to opera scholars — is good for a few laughs, especially in the second, final act, but is more of an excuse for world-class singers to strut their stuff.
As the orphan girl Marie, TCU alum Ava Pine was a vision of energy, enthusiasm, and skill — her coloratura work was as dazzling as a butterfly mid-flight, and when time came for her to bring the house down, she effortlessly obliged, sometimes while practically standing on her head. (She often looked like Lucille Ball out there, throwing her body all over the place for the sake of a few laughs.)
As fantastic as she was, though, the star of the show was David Portillo. As Marie’s love interest Tonio, the former Don Ottavio from the company’s 2010 version of Don Giovanni was so loud and clear, people across the street at Ferré probably heard him. His version of “Yes, it is true!” (“Ah! Mes amis”) — arguably the catchiest and loveliest aria for a tenor in the history of opera — was spellbinding. Portillo nailed every single high C, all nine of them. As he finished and collapsed in the arms of his new friends, Bass Hall erupted into an applause that went on for nearly a minute, pretty much the definition of a showstopper. There’s no telling if subsequent performances will be as magical, but if you have even a passing interest in the life-affirming qualities of music, do yourself a favor and see Portillo in this Fort Worth Opera production. Simply amazing.
There’s not much of a story, unfortunately. After the first 20 minutes or so, you might start to think that Donizetti simply wrote an aria for every single emotion felt by every single character. (“Marie is sad. Sings entire song about her sadness. Tonio is happy. Sings entire song about his joy.”) The second act was pretty breezy though a tad hard to follow, and the first act could have used more humor in the form of sound or sight gags — the Matrix reference was so delightfully cheesy, you might find yourself laughing at and laughing with the company at the same time.
Conducted by Christopher Larkin, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra was pretty bright but full-bodied, appropriate for the music: a mix of ballads, fight songs, and upbeat sentimentality, everything driven by Donizetti’s emphasis on melody (and even occasionally rhyming lyrics).
Congrats also are in order for general director Darren Woods, who made his Fort Worth Opera debut on Daughter’s opening night. As old-timer Hortensius, he didn’t sing a note, but he did have quite a few lines, especially near the end. He rattled them off perfectly. — A.M.
On rare occasions, the standard opera labels simply fall short. This is one of those occasions. Fort Worth Opera’s production of Glory Denied goes far beyond its label as a drama. Composer Tom Cipullo’s creation is a powerfully realistic thriller and an unabashedly honest commentary on the America of the 1960s and ’70s. It is anything but a mere drama. It’s more like a bittersweet personal experience.
General director Woods is no stranger to new, edgy, and often provocative material. His productions of works by living composers such as Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo have helped Fort Worth gain a reputation for pushing the boundaries in an all-too-often stale and intransigent opera world.
Cipullo recently said he stumbled upon the idea for the opera, his first, while reading a book review in The New York Times about Tom Philpott’s Glory Denied, the tragic and very true story of Col. Floyd “Jim” Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history.
As the novel recounts, Thompson spent nearly a decade enduring agonizing torture and isolation at the hands of the Viet Cong only to return home to a wife who had moved in with another man and a country that he no longer recognized and that cared little for him.
For his operatic rendition of this best-selling book, Cipullo chose to focus exclusively on the characters of Thompson and wife Alyce, each character covered by two singers, allowing us to see the couple in both their youthful and older, broken states.
Equally noteworthy is Cipullo’s treatment of time here. The two most pivotal moments in Thompson’s life — his capture and his return — are represented simultaneously. Director Dean Anthony placed the younger characters near the back of the thrust stage while their older versions were near the front, the juxtaposition personifying the ravages of time.
The entire lead cast — Michael Mayes as older Thompson, David Blalock as younger Thompson, Sydney Mancasola as younger Alyce, and Caroline Wora as older Alyce — was brilliant, but Mayes stole the show with his tantalizingly rich voice and gravitas and his powerful portrayal of an older, disenfranchised veteran.
The location of McDavid Studio made for an unexpectedly intimate experience. Opera fans, beware: You may end up sitting four feet from a raging Thompson, mercilessly ripping magazines, spitting up scotch, or curling into a ball to cry.
Cipullo seems to have a natural sense for choral writing, captivating stories, and, of course, the stage. At certain times, though, the orchestral writing did not rise to the level of the wonderfully done libretto or arias.
Operas earn their longevity from the quality and content of their music, so while Glory Denied seems timeless, time itself will have to be the final judge here. — E.B.
Fort Worth Opera Festival
The Daughter of the Regiment. Thru May 10 at Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $75-195. • Glory Denied. Thru May 11 at McDavid Studio, 301 E 5th St, FW. $87. 817-731-0833.