Before discussing Gaetano Donizetti and the lovely new production of The Daughter of The Regiment now playing at the Lyric Opera, time must be taken to remember the most exciting production of the Donizetti opera ever to play in Chicago.
Only sixty-four days following the surrender of General Lee to General Grant, thus ending the Civil War, Chicago was host to perhaps the most historic performance of The Daughter of the Regiment ever given.
Uranus Crosby had booked Maurice Grau’s Italian Opera Company from New York’s Academy of Music for June 5, 1865. The production had set the scene in America’s Civil War where the boys in blue battled the grey rebs, and the tunes were changed to American favorites.
On June 12 Generals Grant and Sherman informed the city of Chicago that they would be in Chicago and planned to go to Crosby’s Opera House to see The Daughter of the Regiment done in American military garb.
The reigning soprano, Clara Kellogg, sang Marie, the title role, and had even learned to play the drum.
All kinds of military and patriotic business had been added – Union army bugle calls, American patriotic airs; real Zouaves played supernumeraries.
This performance was made even more special: house decorated with flags, red, white and blue bunting, and red and baskets of white flower lined the front of the stage and were ensconced along the walls, generals given lower proscenium boxes, one on either side of the house.
In the morning a reception and welcoming ceremony were held at the Board of Trade for General Grant. The General and his party then dined at the Tremont House.
The excited audience filled Crosby’s Opera House (on the northside of Washington between Dearborn and State), including the aisles and every inch of standing room. Carriage drivers were instructed to enter Washington Street from Dearborn only, and after dropping off the passengers, exit out through State Street
South Carolina born Clara Louise Kellogg (1842-1916), playing a Union blue Marie, was backstage when she heard the orchestra strike up “See, the Conquering Hero Comes”, the signal that General Grant had just entered his box. The backstage crew and actors tried to get a glimpse of Grant and his party as the audience applauded, shouted, whistled, and waved flags and handkerchiefs.
Grant acknowledged the ovation in his customary mild manner and then sat down.
At 8 pm Maestro Carl Bergmann (1821-1876) led the “Star-Spangled Banner”.
Early in the First Act General Sherman entered, and the show stopped to acknowledge him. Sherman, who loved applause and attention, soaked up the enthusiastic greeting. He stood effusively, bowing, and saluting, and always smiling. The more Sherman bowed, the more the audience yelled and cheered.
The generals seemed unimpressed by the opera until Augustino Susini (1823-1883), the bass and military veteran playing Sulpice, dressed in a military uniform, entered and walked to the footlights at center stage where he saluted one general, then another, with military precision. Both generals appreciated this salute as the audience went wild yet again
When “Rataplan” was performed, Kellogg, dressed in a short skirt of red, with high, black riding boots, a tight-fitting blue jerkin, and a cocky military cap with a feather in it, directed her drum first to one general’s box then to the other, as she gave a rolling salute, causing mayhem in the audience yet again.
Between acts the generals went backstage to pay their respects. When Kellogg met Grant she commented on his bandaged hand, as Grant did not shake hands. He explained that he simply had shaken too many hands after the war. Sherman had no problem shaking hands. Each general addressed the assembled cast and crew with words of gratitude.
After the curtain fell, Kellogg remarked, “It may not have been a great operatic performance, but it was a great evening.”[i]
The current Lyric Opera production doesn’t have two decorated generals to create enthusiasm. Instead the well-travelled Laurent Pelly/Christian Rath staging creates excitement the old-fashioned way – with great music (conducted by the impressive Speranza Scappucci), Chantal Thomas’ playful scenery, Mr. Pelly’s costumes, Joel Adams’ subtle spot-lighting, and a cast of international superstars, plus the wonderful Lyric Opera Chorus, never sounding better than under Michael Black’s masterful direction.
Donizetti had historically always cause a row. With seven operas by the young upstart Italian composer opening within a year, the French composers of Paris had had enough.
Speaking for his aggrieved colleagues, Hector Berlioz wrote,
Mr. Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion n. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti[i]
The current dazzling Lyric Opera revival of Laurent Pelly’s Daughter of the Regiment demonstrates why the French composers were so alarmed.
The Daughter of the Regiment received a cool reception when it premiered in Paris in 1840. But the work caught on, so that in 1840 there were forty-four performances, more than six hundred in Paris alone by 1875, and by 1914, just 75 years after its premiere, over 1000 performances by the Opera Comique, the opera’s original home.
Donizetti’s opera was regularly staged at the Opera Comique every Bastille Day, July 14. Marie’s “Salut a la France” had become almost a national song.
Throughout the years many prima donnas have become associated with the title role and many wars have served as the backdrop for the libretto by Jules Henry (1799-1875), a frequent collaborator with the great dramatist Eugene Scribe, and Jean Francois Bayard (1796-1853), Scribe’s nephew.
The original cast featured Marie-Julienne Boulanger as the Marquise, Juliette Borgeoise as Marie, Blanchard as Duchess, and Mecene Marie de L’Isle as Tonio. (De L’Isle’s daughter Celestine would be the original Carmen while Mme. Boulanger’s grand-daughter, Nadia, would become a prominent conductor and composer in the 20th century.)
Frieda Hempel (1885-182955) revived the opera during the 1917-1918 season, giving the opera special significance with the Great War in the background. She even interpolated the English ballad “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. During World War II, soon after the Nazis occupied France, the opera regained political significance as Lily Pons (1898-1976) draped herself with the flag of the Free French Forces to sing the Marseillaise while carrying a cross-bearing flag of Lorraine. This version of the Donizetti classic was directed by Herbert Graf opened New York’s Metropolitan Opera House’s 1941 with Ms. Pons wearing a wardrobe by Valentina. The New York Times noted that “the two smartest things in the show were Miss Pons’s very chic and telling costumes and her singing of the Marseilles’ at the end, followed by the cast singing the national anthem.”[ii]
Pelly’s production has featured great pairs: Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena, Juan Diego Flores and Natalie Dessay. Wonderful performers all.
But with the Lyric’s current pairing of Lisette Oropesa, making her Lyric debut, with crowd-favorite Lawrence Brownlee, the stage was set for a one-of-a kind experience. We had heard Ms. Oropesa in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Massenet’s Manon, but were totally unprepared for her brilliant live performance. From slapstick comedy to heart-felt pathos worthy of Lucia, she took the audience with her as she ran the gamut of the character’s emotions.
Her vocal equal was Mr. Brownlee, outstanding in the Cinderella of 2015, and brilliant in the Barber of Seville of 2019, with his partner in comic crime, the irrepressible Adam Plachetka. The Rob Ashford production also featured one of opera;;s great comic actor-singers Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo. As in the Ashford production, Mr. Corbelli’s performance as the ever-reliable Sulpice offered a master class in classic French farce.
The quality of the casting went deep, especially the riveting Ronnita Miller as The Marquise. The performers’ universal stage charm, exquisite singing, and fully-committed acting made time fly by. Each performer seemed to inspire everyone else on stage to new heights of performance excellence.
Revival director Christian Rath deserves great credit for maintaining Mr. Pelly’s vision, in which Laura Scozzi’s lively and amusing choreography seems as fresh as the day it was set.
Tonio’s “Ah! Mes amis quel jour de fete!” featured 18 high Cs, due to the unprecedented encore granted Mr. Brownlee by Maestra Scappucci. The audience was on the edge of their seats for each and every one, and went wild at the conclusion of number eighteen. It was a priceless moment in the Lyric’s proud history.
Ms. Oropesa’s subsequent heart-wrenching aria deserved the sustained applause it received as well. The music, vocalization, and acting echoes the fate of Lucia di Lammermoor.
When the curtain rang down, the Lyric audience thundered their appreciation. In one week they had seen two very different operas given magnificent productions. A rarity.
[i] Hector Berloiz, Les musiciens et la musique (Paris, 1903).
[ii] “LILY PONS HEARD AT METROPOLITAN: ‘ La Fille du Regiment’ Offered as Opening Work Before an Overflowing House FRANK ST. LEGER DIRECTS Sulpice Is Sung by Baccaloni — ‘Marseillaise’ and National Anthem Are Given” by Olin Dpwnes New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y] 24 Nov 1942: 19.
[iii] Euhene H. Cropsey. Crosby’s Opera House. Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening.Madison: Fairleigh Dickensen University Press, 1999.
Ronald L. David. Opera in Chicago. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966.