Le Fille du Régiment on Monday night was a thoroughly enjoyable and totally hilarious surprise. Gaetano Donizetti wrote in the ‘bel-canto’ (beautiful singing) tradition. Along with Bellini, he epitomized Italian romantic music before Verdi came along. Le Fille’s premiere came at a time when Donizetti was well on his way to conquering the European musical capital of Paris. After a series of successive hits at the Théâtre Italien, such as Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’ Amore, Donizetti decided to try writing an opera in French. While working on a couple grand operas for the Opéra, Le Fille developed as a side project. It premiered at the Opéra Comique on February 11, 1840, when something of a fiasco took place. Some, such as the composer/critic Hector Berlioz, were upset about Donizetti’s increasing popularity. In his Journal des Débats, Berlioz vented his frustrations:
“Two major scores for the Opéra, Les Martyrs and Le Duc d’Albe, two others at the Renaissance, Lucie de Lammermoor and L’Ange de Nisida, two at the Opéra Comique, La Fille du Régiment and another whose title is still unknown, and yet another for the Théâtre Italien; will have been written or transcribed in one year by the same composer! M.Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only the opera houses of M. Donizetti.”
As is usually the case, eventually all the huff-and-puff defused, and Donizetti’s new opera came to be regarded as one of his best. Musically, Le Fille is a showcase for singing virtuosity that only the best can pull off. Marie’s Act I aria “Chacun le sait” and Tonio’s Act I aria “Ah, mes amis”, with its notorious nine high Cs, are only two moments of vocal brilliance in a score that includes a plethora of them. The musical style bounces between military marches with chorus (some of which have become famous), ingeniously witty and light comic music, and sincere lyricism that rarely reaches the level of cliché. In addition to the music, the libretto is ingeniously crafted, accurately depicting human interactions through both light and dry humor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera as funny.
The production, by Laurent Pelly, exploited the comic plot to great effect. For the entire opera the action takes place on top of large maps arranged in a topographical manner, similar to the Alps. This feature plays on the traveling Regiment and on Marie’s transitory state in life. Even the Duchess’s house in Act II is placed on top of these hilly maps, underlying where Marie really wants to be- back with her Regiment. Tacky, blown-up postcards of early 20th Century couples are lowered down to the set during a few touching moments, highlighting the ridiculousness of scenes. This, for me was slightly degrading to the opera, and took attention away from the touching music.
Mr Pelly’s greatest achievement is in drawing fantastic acting out of the cast. Diana Damrau is one of the foremost coloratura sopranos today, and she sang a nearly spotless yet risk-taking performance. Her character Maria is basically an army brat, raised by her Regiment in the mountains. She has little education, does basic chores for the Regiment, and calls them all her ‘papas’. In return, they pick her up and throw her over their shoulders, even flipping her upside down in the middle of her singing. She plays the part of a big child till the end, when she salutes the audience and then dramatically curtsies for her bow. During the spoken-dialog, (being a necessary inclusion in all operas at the Opéra Comique) all the performers stood out for their comic acting. Ms. Meredith Arwady, playing the Marquise, over-enunciated her French almost to the point of ridiculousness. She drew laughter from the audience with nearly every line. The tenor Juan Diego Flórez, reprising his role of Tonio, nailed all nine high Cs, and sang with amazing lightness throughout, never showing sign of strain. After his famous aria “Ah, mes amis”, you could tell the audience wanted an encore. The legendary soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, played the Duchess. During her entrance at the start of Act II, her vocalizing made the crowd swoon. Included in her subsequent spoken dialog were comments about Marie’s future husband being away at Olympic duty and some shouting at the butler in English, all of which made for a refreshing performance.
The beauty of spoken dialog is that because there is no music attached to it, it is easier to update with the times. Small additions like this remind modern audiences that opera is alive and tangible, which is frequently forgotten when it is in a foreign language. Doing this without degrading the opera to a point of ridiculousness is one of the challenges that opera directors face for the future. Mr. Pelly’s production was one of the most comically captivating operas I’ve seen, and made certain that no one in the audience dozed off.