Opera under the stars: surely a bold, adventurous, possibly even reckless experience guaranteed to please and excite.
Unless, of course, it rains.
Mill City Summer Opera, which opened its fourth season Saturday night with a production of Donizetti's comic romp "The Daughter of the Regiment," got lucky. The threatening afternoon clouds blew away, leaving almost clear skies and a cool breeze in the open-air courtyard of the Mill City Museum.
The production itself is not without blemish. It's a wacky tale to begin with. The hoydenish Marie, drum majorette of Napoleon's scraggly 21st Regiment, is forced to act like a future duchess, thereby losing not just Tonio, the young man she loves, but also the soldiers of the regiment, whom she considers her stepfathers. The plot quickly thins.
Marie, it turns out, loves war. She practices stabbing her enemies and is quite cheerful about it all. This is a story and a character no one wants to probe too deeply, and directors tend to push the comedy till it can hardly breathe. David Lefkowich does that here, too, often enforcing a frenzied slapstick — some of it funny, some not. An overall sense of style is missing, despite the eye-filling costumes by Jessica Jahn.
The opera's sentimental moments are thoughtfully expressed — the love between Marie and Tonio and the final revelations of Marie's aunt (actually, her mother), smartly portrayed and sung by Cindy Sadler. Lefkowich's cast, a mix of local singer-actors and imports, is strong.
Chad Johnson makes an appealing, eager Tonio, displaying a light — but not always effortless — tenor just right for this idiom. Although his tone was pinched, he hit all nine high C's in "Ah! mes amis" dead center. Nathan Stark was an endearing Sgt. Sulpice, Alex Richie a wry Corporal, Claudia Wilkens an imposing Duchess and Bradley Greenwald a super-foppish, highly excitable Hortensius.
But this opera is all about Marie, and Mill City smartly cast the young and attractive Leah Partridge, whose silvery, elegantly supple voice — a lyric coloratura with an especially agile top register — is perfect for the role. Beverly Sills described Marie as "Lucille Ball with high notes," and Partridge's Marie caught that zany spirit.
Conductor Brian DeMaris, leading the fine but occasionally brass-heavy orchestra, enforced spirit and shrewd pacing. Jo Winiarski designed the minimal, atmospheric sets.
Mill City Summer Opera has beaten not just the weather but the odds. Here's a young, small company that is selling out shows, performing in an evocative space with good acoustics. Let's hope that this company decides to grow not just financially but artistically, which means that it can't confine itself to standard repertoire. We have Minnesota Opera for that.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.