A Winning Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Donizetti, La Fille du Régiment: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Yves Abel(conductor, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 19.4.2012 (CC)


Patrizia Ciofi – Marie
Colin Lee – Tonio
Anne Murray – La Marquesse de Berkenfeld
Donald Maxwell – Hortensius
Alan Opie – Sulpice Pingot
Ann Widdecombe – La Duchesse de Crackentorp
Jonathan Fisher – Corporal
Luke Price – Peasant
Jean-Pierre Blanchard- Notary


Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s Fille is a sure-fire winner (in contrast to his production of Manon at the Met whose simulcast I recently covered, Netrebko or no Netrebko). Imaginative, inventive and most of all sheer fun, Pelly’s production seems to get it all right, as seeing it again (after one previous performance at Covent Garden and one Met simulcast, 2008) proved.

This was also the third conductor. Bruno Campanella had conducted at the Garden last time (he conducts the wonderful DVD on Virgin Classics, too); the Met simulcast was conducted by Marco Armiliato. For the most recent round at Covent Garden, it was Yves Abel who took the helm, and not entirely successfully it must be confessed. The music sagged rather too often (Campanella in particular kept things moving and the result was a real sense of dramatic trajectory). Dimunuendos at the end of short orchestral interjections sounded repeatedly mannered. Neither did either of the major roles (Marie and Tonio) reach the heights previous productions have managed.

Patrizia Ciofi’s Marie was in some senses a polar opposite to Dessay’s. She was by far at her best in the score’s interior moments. Dessay sparkled infectiously in the joy of the regimental exchanges (ironing while she sang with huge energy). Ciofi’s dynamism was more muted; and comedy is not really her home turf, it appears. Or perhaps it is just that she is inevitably pitted against the hilarious Dessay. Her regimental song (“Il est là, morbleu, le beau Vingt-et-unième”) was somehow underpowered, and occasionally her vocal fireworks at speed were not pinpoint perfect. She seemed to be vocally tired in the opera’s final stages, too (surely such an experienced singer could not have mistimed it?).

South African tenor Colin Lee sang this role in the runs of this production in 2007 and in 2010. It was wise to pair him with Ciofi, as he, too, works better with more interior matters than he does with the more outgoing. Their unanimity of purpose meant that they duetted very effectively. Lee has a secure top C, that much is sure, though (he needs one in this opera), so his “A mes amis” worked a treat. He has some big shoes to fill, too – for him, he follows Juan Diego Flórez. That he could triumph after such a distinguished precessor says much. One curious point regarding clothing: with Flórez, it was the colour, knitted (?) top that was hilarious; with Lee, it was the Lederhosen.

In summary for the two major roles, Lee has a lyrical, pleasant voice that he used to great effect. With this emphasis on the lyrical, the work did emerge as more multifaceted than usual. The same production had a very different effect, although the jokes (such as the parade of regimental smalls) worked as well as ever.

Let’s get it over with, then. Ann Widdecombe, formerly a British politician, was hilarious and clearly having a ball. The text was brought into tune with contemporary issues, most obviously the Olympics, but also, inevitably, the TV programme Strictly Come Dancing. Her liberal use of Franglais only added to the fun. Those other great comic characters, the Marquise de Berkenfeld and Hortensius, also provided great delight. Donald Maxwell is no stranger to the role of the unfortunate Major-Domo Hortensius (2007 and 2010), while Ann Murray (who played this role in 2010) used every ounce of her huge experience to bring her part to the very heights of pomposity.

Alan Opie has been confirming his credentials in no uncertain way recently with Klinghoffer over at ENO. Sulpice could hardly be a more different role. Again, there was huge competition from previous performances of Fille. Alessandro Corbelli is a wonderful character actor (as well as a wonderful singer). Opie brought his own touch to this essentially comic-book, rolly-polly role, and did so with great aplomb.

Finally, the chorus, as always magnificent. Ensemble was good, but the most memorable moment chorally was the female chorus of “Sainte Madone” at the opening, when they pray to the Holy Virgin.

Colin Clarke