Opera Della Luna has an admirable track record of revitalising old comic operas. Its guiding spirit, Jeff Clarke, has taken Donizetti’s comic masterpiece and set the story, not in Napoleonic times, but in contemporary California, and turned ‘The Regiment’ into an outlaw biker gang complete with leathers, bandanas, and pastiche Harley Davidsons. Combined with some inspired casting, the result is simply wonderful – a genuinely funny story with the highest musical values.
Marie is a biker chick. Abandoned in the Californian Mountains as a baby, she was found and raised by the soldiers of ‘The Regiment Biker Club,’ and she considers them all to be her fathers. She falls in love with Tonio, a chicano ‘wetback’ who is at first rejected by the bikers. Just as he wins their trust, a rich heiress from Los Angeles stumbles across the gang and it is discovered that Marie is her long-lost niece. She takes Marie away to her mansion to be schooled in ladylike ways and to be prepared for a ‘good marriage’. Needless to say, Marie is unhappy in this new environment and The Regiment, with Tonio as their new leader, turn up to set all to rights.
On the somewhat basic Wilton’s stage there is little room for scenery – we get a tree for the mountains of the first act and a piano for the mansion of the second act. The bikers’ Harleys are just handlebars and wheels but the elderly hoodlums look wonderful in their array of long hair and leathers. But the rough and raucous language of the gang – in the brilliant libretto provided by Jeff Clarke – is consistently laugh-out-loud witty and just goes to prove that, in the hands of a master, re-worked comic situations can be brilliantly funny.
So far so good, but what made the evening an outstanding success was that the lead roles are filled by three singers with superb voices and great comic flair. Charles Johnston, an ENO stalwart, is Sulpice, the leader of the biker gang – he really does look as if he has been researching the role with the Oakland Chapter of Hells Angels. He has a great voice, but it is his flair for comedy that stands out here. And yet there is an undertone of pathos as his love for Marie is tested – first by the arrival of Tonio, and then by the demands of Marie’s aunt. Jesus Alvarez plays Tonio with huge charm as a naïve, fresh-faced lad, so his transformation into the leader of the biker gang stretches our credulity. But he sings the part with absolute assurance and nails the nine high ‘C’s of “Ah! Mes amis…” with real style. But even in this stellar company, the star of the show is Elin Pritchard as Marie – her “Annie get your gun” persona as she switches between biker chick, love-sick maiden, and reluctant heiress is hilarious and her splendid soprano soars above the ensemble when it is needed.
This combination of top quality singing and inventive comedy is a tribute to the whole cast – including the bikers and the folk from Californian high society, each of whom deserves their own paragraph of praise. And the orchestra, conducted by Benedict Kearns and squeezed uncomfortably into a small space at the side of the stage, produced a miraculously fine version of the score. This is the sort of fresh, funny, and inventive production that reminds us that great operas don’t need to be stale and hide-bound. Long live Opera Della Luna!