Too bad you can’t rewind live performances.
It would have been great to hit replay to experience that late Act II scene in Arizona Opera’s production of “The Daughter of the Regiment” where Didi Conn pulls off her floppy hat to reveal a shock of cotton candy pink hair.
"Your hair looks like an Easter egg!" fellow cast member Margaret Gawrysiak told her.
“I had a little trouble in tinting class,” Conn retorted.
We should have seen that coming when we saw Conn’s name in the program in the non-singing role of Duchess of Krakenthorp. Director John de los Santos lifted the exchange straight from a scene of Conn’s most famous role as beauty school dropout Frenchy in the 1970s musical “Grease.” When you cast Conn — making her first ever appearance in an opera with the Arizona production — incorporating Frenchy into the character should be considered a no-brainer.
That was one of several pop culture references de los Santos sprinkled in Donizett’s comic opera, and it and the others — naming party guests Lord and Lady Ups and Downs, Baron von der Weiner Schnitzel and Lord Frankenstein, for example — were good for some easy chuckles. But it was the little things de los Santos did that brought the biggest laughs throughout Saturday’s performance at Tucson Music Hall. (It repeats at 2 p.m. today.)
• Mezzo-soprano Gawrysiak’s The Marquise crosses herself whenever anyone says “damn” or any other perceived curse word.
• Her butler Hortensius (the funny and beautiful voiced bass-baritone Calvin Griffin) skitters about nervously whenever the regiment is around.
• Tonio (tenor David Portillo, who was stunning in his first act aria) instructed Arizona Opera Conductor Keitaro Harada to strike up the orchestra as a distraction while he and Marie tried to sneak out. Harada and the musicians then became key characters in the action.
Having the ability to rewind also would have let us experience again all the amazing singing. Donizetti does not make it easy for vocalists — particularly Tonio and Marie, who have strings of high Cs including at least nine in Tonio’s Act I aria. Portillo, who will make his New York Metropolitan Opera debut late this year in “Barber of Seville,” never faltered when scaling those heights with a commanding strength. He was terrific.
So was soprano Susannah Biller, making her role debut. She soars to that high register and never once does her beautiful, goose bumps-inducing soprano fade or weaken beneath the stain of Donizetti’s challenging writing. If she was this fabulous in her first ever try at Marie, imagine how amazing she is going to be once she grows more fully into the role. She also has a comedian’s sense of timing and wonderfully funny body language.
The biggest laughs, though, were generated by Gawrysiak, who also is blessed with a strong, attention-grabbing voice. Gawrysiak was plain-out funny in every scene she performed, whether it was fainting at the arrival of French soldiers in Act I or coyly hitting on Sergeant Sulpice (the wonderfully funny bass Stefano de Peppo).Everything about Arizona Opera’s production clicked, from the chorus, which never ceases to delight; to the orchestra, which sounded refreshingly alive under Harada, Arizona Opera’s associate conductor. Harada performed Donizetti’s delightful score with energy and charisma.