La fille du régiment premiered in Paris at the Opera-Comique on 11 February 1840.  Donizetti had by this point attained preeminence in France, inaugurated largely by the hugely successful premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1837.  The popularity of the Italian composer was such that Berlioz, in his predominantly dismissive review of the latter work, wrote: ‘One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of M. Donizetti.’  There is perhaps an element of irony in the ubiquity of Donizetti’s operas in the musical scene of the French capital, yet it is not terribly surprising that his buoyant melodies and virtuosic vocal writing became popular favourites with the public.  Nevertheless, the great difficulty of the principal roles coupled with the relative flimsiness of the plot renders La fille far from an easy opera to stage well; the opening night of this, The Royal Opera’s second revival of their current production, marked only the fifty-ninth performance of the work at Covent Garden since its premiere more than one-hundred and seventy-two years ago.

French director Laurent Pelly’s joyous staging of the work has been a favourite of London audiences since its premiere in 2007.  In many respects its brightly lit, effervescent sense of life remained as fresh and enjoyable as it was in both its previous incarnations.  Chantal Thomas’s set designs, centred on an Alpine topography of colourful maps underpinning the stage and rising as ersatz mountains in the background, continued to delight; the ensemble pieces, choreographed by Laura Scozzi, were as charming as ever.  If Christian Rath’s direction of the revival felt perhaps slightly less polished than its predecessors, it nonetheless succeeded in maintaining most of their winsome levity.  The most obvious worry for this revival was the noticeable lacuna left by the stars who originally made Pelly’s production such a hit; one had to wonder—could the staging still sparkle bereft of both Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez?

Ultimately, despite the preponderance of joys that remained, it did not—yet this was not entirely due to the expected cause.  Patrizia Ciofi, the Italian soprano who filled the rather large shoes left by Ms. Dessay, made just about as convincing a Marie as her predecessor.  If her characterisation veered rather close to that of her forerunner, and if she overdid some of the melodrama without imbuing it with quite the same level of charm, she still proved altogether likeable in her portrayal of the eponymous daughter of the regiment.  More than this, her singing was generally superb, flowing with ease through the coloratura obstacle course of Donizetti’s writing.  ‘Au bruit de la guerre’ soared spiritedly and freely, and her facetious take on Italian songs—‘Le jour naissait dans le bocage’—was as gleaming with comic undertones as it should have been.  Though Tonio’s role often attracts more attention for the fiendish difficulty of those glittering high Cs, it is Marie who holds the opera together, and it is no easy feat to sustain the role’s coloratura heights from start to finish.  Yet Ms. Ciofi did just this, her soprano impressing throughout with its brightness and ease.

Nor did Colin Lee disappoint as Tonio.  His tone is darker, less golden and flowing than Mr. Flórez’s, yet he succeeded in handling the extremely tough tessitura of the part with panache.  The touchstone of any assumption of Tonio is always those famous high Cs that are the hallmark of the resplendent ‘Ah!  Mes amis’.  Mr. Lee did them full justice, landing each note with assurance.  If, like Ms. Ciofi, he exhibited more of the strain inherent in the demanding nature of the role, he also impressed more often than not.  ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ was delivered with delicacy, Mr. Lee’s timbre pure and graceful.  If his portrayal was marred by a tendency toward overdoing the naïve bumpkin side to Tonio in a way that could grate, his singing succeeded in being both heartfelt and lovely.

Returning to the role of the Marquise de Berkenfeld was mezzo-soprano Ann Murray.  She made the part just as much her own as she did on the last two outings, continually impressing for her comic sensibility as much as her superb vocal performance.  She simply commanded the stage with ‘Pour une femme de mon nom’, her lower register particularly plush and resonant.  The Marquise’s servant Hortensius was once again sung by the excellent Donald Maxwell, who drew out the full measure of comedy from the part; his scenes with Ms. Murray were a delight.  The Sulpice of Alan Opie was perhaps less memorable, yet Mr. Opie sang the part well enough, at his best in his scenes with Ms. Murray in the second act, as well as his entertaining trio with Ms. Ciofi and Mr. Lee, ‘Tous les trios réunis’.

The heavy-handedness of aspects of the non-naturalistic staging still gall—indeed, after repeated outings, they begin to gall all the more.  Mr. Pelly tackles the silliness of the drama with a production rich in farce, playing up the more slapstick side of the opera.  At its best, it dazzles with levity and wry comedy—the vaudeville-esque routine of the trio sung when Marie, Sulpice, and Tonio are all reunited in the second act, the filling of the ballet movement that opens the act with a perfectly synchronized dusting of the Chateau de Berkenfeld by a troupe of cross-dressing servants.  At other times, the pantomime becomes too artificial, too lacking in subtlety.  The appearance of a large playing card descending from above to announce ‘Le baromètre de l’amour’ when Tonio and Marie are united in love is simply distracting, facile and over the top; some of the theatrical hysterics—Marie’s pouting, Tonio’s constant puppy dog earnestness—become irritating after a while.  It managed to work well with the previous cast, but Ms. Ciofi and Mr. Lee, as good as their vocal performances were, simply could not capture the same level of on-stage allure.

However, the chief disappointment of the evening came from the pit.  Yves Abel conducted a decent account of the score, yet it never quite achieved the vitality and joie de vivre so essential to it.  The overture lacked vigour, and was marred by muddiness in the strings and missteps in the brass.  The woodwinds played well, the clarinet instilling the joy and playfulness that was initially lacking; however, though the singers were well supported in their arias, the direction lacked the élan and liveliness that made the previous iterations of Pelly’s production so enjoyable.  Without this in place, even the very good performances from the leads could not quite imbue the production with the charismatic pull it exerted in the past.

Finally, one has to wonder at the Royal Opera’s decision to cast former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe in the non-singing role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp.  Ms. Widdecombe obviously tried her best, and I suppose she was entertaining enough despite not being particularly natural as a presence on stage.  Still, one has to give her credit for taking on the role and endowing it was as much humour as she could.

The Royal Opera Chorus were on sterling form; indeed, the set-pieces featuring the men of the twenty-first regiment  were amongst the most entertaining of the evening.  Pelly’s production is at its best during the cleverly choreographed ensemble scenes, showcasing the sense of jubilance at the heart of Donizetti’s opera.  It is this sense of buoyancy, augmented by strong showings from Mr. Lee, Ms. Ciofi, and Ms. Murray in particular, that kept the evening consistently appealing.  Just the same, it was hard not to compare it to the past two stagings, and to wish it had managed to capture a dash more of their lustre.

3.5 stars

John E. De Wald

Opera Britannia

(Photos by Bill Cooper)