United Kingdom Donizetti, La Fille du régiment: Soloists, Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Yves Abel in Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production: designs by Chantal Thomas. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 9.3.2014. (JPr)
Marie: Patrizia Ciofi
Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez
Sulpice: Pietro Spagnoli
La Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ewa Podleś
La Duchesse de Crackentorp: Kiri Te Kanawa
Hortensius: Donald Maxwell
Director: Laurent Pelly
Revival Director: Christian Räth
Dialogue: Agathe Mélinand
Set designs: Chantal Thomas
Costume designs: Laurent Pelly
Lighting design: Joël Adam
Choreography: Laura Scozzi
The sun was out over London and thoughts were turning – after the Noah-like deluges of recent months – to thoughts of barbecues and hosepipe bans. La Fille du régiment was a perfect antidote for those long winter blues while our thoughts are still with those still mired in the aftermath of the rising flood waters. It is an always enjoyable comic opera and an evening – an afternoon in this case – where little is to be taken seriously in any way, apart from the central love story between Marie and Tonio. Laurent Pelly’s production for The Royal Opera which has proved popular with audiences in London, Vienna, New York and San Francisco since it was put on in 2007 is nearly perfect in this respect, everything is played for laughs while showcasing the opera’s many vocal pleasures. Pelly’s production (here spiritedly revived by Christian Räth) is updated from the time of Napoleon to Chantal Thomas’s often two-dimensional postcard-inspired Tyrol setting at the time of the WWI. In 2014 when there is too much celebration – rather than commemoration – of that ‘Great War’ a hundred years on, making fun of this war might be a cause of some concern … however these doubts are only fleeting.
In August 1839 Donizetti was approached by the Opéra-Comique in Paris and commissioned to compose La Fille du régiment, a comic opera with dialogue. Jules Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard, had written a libretto with a typically absurd operatic plot: the young foundling Marie, raised from childhood by her ‘daddies’ of the French army’s 21st regiment loves Tonio, a young man from the Tyrol, who joins the regiment to be with her. As the plot unfolds, Marie is horrified to discover that she is really a noblewoman abandoned by her mother as a baby but now is being made to marry someone of her ‘own’ social class – until love wins through in the end of course.
This was the composer’s 55th opera and he finished it in only two months with the première being on 11th February 1840. It was the first of Donizetti’s operas composed in French to reach the Paris stage and he pays obvious tribute to French pride and nationalism while gently making fun of army life. Donizetti went out of his way to endear himself to the French public by including moments such as in Act II when Marie finds herself at the château of the Marquise de Berkenfeld yet longing for her ‘family’ of the 21st. She then hears the roll of the drums that announces the arrival of her beloved soldiers and sings a song of praise to France that she will repeat with the entire ensemble to bring down the curtain at the end of the opera.
The curtain rises on a Les Misérables-inspired gaggle of refugees trundling carts full of their belongings and fleeing the advance of the French soldiers. Their invocation for help from God in their struggle is at odds with all the ensuing silliness that is redolent of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup – yet without the Marxes. Travel maps and those postcards are a recurring visual motif. In Act I Marie does some manic ironing, peels potatoes and looks wretchedly tomboyish. Her singing is intermittently interrupted by clothes lines of long johns stretching across the stage. Tonio is not surprisingly wearing lederhosen. In Act II the Berkenfeld castle is represented by just the outline of a wood-panelled salon, initially being dusted by some Monty Pythonesque men-dressed-as-women cleaners. There is an amusing gaggle of inebriated elderly wedding guests that made me think about Peter Gelb’s recent comments about how the subscribers for the Met in New York are ageing! Near the end in a coup de théâtre Tonio returns to claim back Marie on top of a solidly three-dimensional tank, then a giant postcard of a French rooster descends as everyone crows that final chorus of ‘Salut à la France!’ and the curtain descends. Incidentally, this song alone became an enormous hit for Donizetti and when sold separately soon was enshrined as an unofficial French national anthem, second only to La Marseillaise.
This revival had brought Kiri Te Kanawa back to Covent Garden – after 17 years – to bid farewell and also celebrate her 70th birthday at the previous performance. Hers was the normally non-singing role of the Duchess of Crackentorp – that was previously taken by Dawn French and Ann Widdecombe – but to celebrate the event, she sang the aria ‘O fior del diorno’ from Puccini’s Edgar that post-dated this Donizetti opera by nearly 50 years. She was every millimetre ‘La Grande-Duchess’ and if Ewa Podleś La Marquise de Berkenfeld was the Marx Brothers comic foil Margaret Dumont, then Te Kanawa was more like an older Lady Mae from the TV drama series Mr Selfridge – someone from a less reputable background who had married well. La Marquise was constantly seeking a ‘thatched cottage’ in the Tyrolean mountains while the Duchess did not want anyone to ‘stint on the Dom Perignon’ at the signing of the marriage contract. Here and elsewhere Dame Kiri spoke in English and the surtitles provide the original French such as ‘Partez!’ for ‘Go Away!’ In truth, there is so much dialogue in this opera that it could have all been spoken in English, especially since there was probably only one native French speaker in the current cast.
I was pleased to see a genuine star tenor once again at Covent Garden and Juan Diego Flórez was back to sing one of his signature roles. He had clearly discovered his ‘sweet spot’ on the stage (at the front towards stage right) and ‘retreated’ there whenever possible. He received a tremendous ovation after ‘Ah! mes amis’ posing in triumph so (too?) long that it seemed we might get the encore some were demanding before. At last the conductor went on with the music. His voice filled the theatre and the infamous pinging nine high Cs were evidence of his secure technique. Flórez could clearly continue to sing Tonio for several more years but I hope – since he admits himself his voice is changing – it might be time for something more substantial and dramatic to challenge him, leaving behind this show-off aria for the concert platform. His two more reflective arias were perhaps even more impressive. I am not certain how good an actor he really is but here it does not matter as he was a suitably gangly, gauche – but ultimately heroic – Tonio.
I pondered when I saw this production in 2010 whether it could survive without its original Marie, Natalie Dessay. She had seemed such a natural comedienne that I wonder how much of the posturing, gesticulating, and willingness to sing coloratura in every possible position – including being carried aloft horizontally in the raised arms of her ‘daddies’ – was her idea or Mr Pelly’s? With Patrizia Ciofi as Marie it all survives … just. However there is a hint that she is bringing us only a copy of something some of us have seen done better. The tomboy shenanigans and physical comedy does not seem as ‘natural’ for her as they did for Ms Dessay, the top of her voice did not have quite the subtleness Marie needs but like Flórez she impressed with her two slow arias; ‘Il faut partir’ (Act I) and ‘Par le rang et l’opulence’ (Act II) often had an appealing quasi-Verdian beauty and poignancy.
What with all the dialogue and encounters between Marie and Tonio, the supporting cast is given little to sing by Donizetti but was uniformly excellent and included the outstanding Ewa Podleś as the Marquise who is revealed near the end to be Marie’s mother. This Polish contralto has an amazing vocal range and – as if this were not enough – obviously plays the piano well too! The cast was completed by Pietro Spagnoli as Sergeant Sulpice Pingot and Donald Maxwell, who returned as the Major-domo, Hortensius. They never overstayed their welcome on stage, sang well and gave – often laugh-out-loud – funny performances. They were well supported by Bryan Secombe’s Corporal, Luke Price’s peasant, Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s Notary, a valiant chorus and an orchestra on good form. Admittedly I thought the overture was never going to end and perhaps Yves Abel did wind things down during the slower music and whipped up the faster passages a little too much to test his singers from time to time, but this is an opera that would be difficult to spoil – and he certainly didn’t. It was once again all wonderfully light-hearted with much fun had by all.
For more information about future events with The Royal Opera at Covent Garden visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.