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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797–1848)
La Fille du Régiment - Opéra-comique in two acts (1840)
Marie, a supposed orphan adopted by the regiment - Natalie Dessay (soprano); Tonio, a young Tyrolean in love with Marie – Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Sulpice, a sergeant of the regiment and senior father of Marie - Alessandro Corbeli (buffa bass); La Marquise de Berkenfeld - Felicity Palmer (mezzo); Hortensius, major-domo of the Marquise – Donald Maxwell (bass); La Duchesse de Crakentrop - Dawn French (comedienne); Un Caporal - Bryan Secombe; Un paysan - Luke Price; Un notaire - Jean-Pierre Blanchard
The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Bruno Campanella
rec. live, 11 January 2007.
Stage Director and costumes: Laurent Pelly
Set Designs: Chantal Thomas
Television Director: Robin Lough
NTSC: all regions. Picture format: 16/9 Colour. Sound formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. Dolby 5:1 Surround
Subtitles in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5190029 [132:00]


Experience Classicsonline

In 1832, after constant frustration from the censors in Naples who demanded happy endings, Donizetti cancelled his contract and left the city. Two years later he returned as musical director of the Royal Theatres, a position once held by Rossini. Like his renowned predecessor he was required to write opera seria for the San Carlo each year. The first of these was to have been Maria Stuarda, but the censors interfered, yet again objecting to the tragic ending. In little more than two weeks Donizetti rearranged the music to a new libretto, Buondelmonte. Needless to say it was only a moderate success. During a trip to Paris at Rossini’s invitation he presented Marino Faliero at the Théâtre Italien. Following on after Bellini’s I Puritani it made few waves. Donizetti however, had seen the higher musical standards and experienced the better remuneration available in Paris and planned to return. Back in Naples he presented Lucia di Lamermoor. It was rapturously received. With the premature death of Bellini in the same year, and Rossini no longer composing opera, Donizetti could claim pre-eminence among Italian opera composers. He fulfilled his contract at the San Carlo with L’assedio di Calais in 1836, Roberto Devereux (see review) the following year and wrote Poliuto for 1838. This story of Christian martyrdom in Roman times worried the censors. With the work complete Donizetti was told that the King, a deeply religious man, had personally forbidden its staging in Naples and Pia de’ Tolomei (see Reviews on CD and DVD) was substituted in its place.

The banning of Poliuto was the final straw for Donizetti who left Naples for Paris in October 1838. Once there he agreed to write two operas in French. For the first he turned to Poliuto and engaged Eugène Scribe to produce a French text based on Cammarano’s original Italian libretto. For the revised Poliuto he rewrote the recitatives, divided act one into two, added arias, trios and the de rigueur ballet as well as a new finale. The new four-act opera was premiered as Les Martyrs (see review) at The Opéra on 10 March 1839. Whilst awaiting the ever dilatory Scribe to complete the new libretto, Donizetti presented a French version of Lucia as Lucie de Lamermoor (see review) and wrote La Fille du regiment, premiered at the Opéra Comique on 11 February 1840.

The style of La Fille du régiment is distinctly different from L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale, Donizetti’s earlier Italian comic operas. It is not only a question of the French language or the extensive use of spoken dialogue as was the tradition at the Paris Opéra Comique, but also to some extent the musical idiom itself with Donizetti bending over backwards to relate to his French audience. Take it further, particularly in a performance and production such as this, and the name of Offenbach and his musical genre of thirty years later springs readily to mind. The dialogue is used to introduce characters as in the case of La Marquise de Berkenfeld and Hortensius at the start of act one whilst also permitting the participants, particularly any non-singing role such as the La Duchesse de Crakentrop, to raise some laughter with topical jokes. In this production the period is updated to the early twentieth century. The Tyrolean location is represented on the act one set by a two and three-dimensional outline map of the Alps as a backdrop and on the stage and around which the chorus of fearful peasants move. The demeanour of the populace, their headgear and stacked furniture, represent the reality of the war around them.

The story concerns Marie, a believed orphan, who has been adopted by a regiment of soldiers fighting in the Swiss Tyrol during the Napoleonic wars. Now grown up she is the mascot and vivandière of the regiment whom she refers to as her collective fathers, with sergeant Sulpice her principal father. Marie has been seeing a local Tyrolean man who had saved her life. The two are in love, but Marie can only marry a member of the regiment so the young man, Tonio, joins up. He does so just as Sulpice discovers a connection with the stranded Marquise de Berkenfeld who takes Marie back to her home on the basis of being her long lost niece.

In this production by Laurent Pelly, updated to the early nineteen hundreds, Natalie Dessay portrays Marie as a gamine, red-haired tomboy and something of a skivvy for the soldiers. She appears in dungarees and braces pulling a line of soldier’s Long-Johns. She carries their laundry and irons their clothes whilst at the same time accurately singing stratospheric coloratura with her light flexible soprano, a feat she achieves with vocal aplomb and distinction alongside uniquely animated acting.

Compared to Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Pasquale there are fewer well-known numbers. That said, Tonio’s aria Ah! mes amis, near the end of the first act, the one with the nine high Cs, eight written and one at the end interpolated by any tenor capable, will be instantly recognised. It was made famous by Pavarotti who recorded the role of Tonio alongside Joan Sutherland at the beginning of his career after performances at Covent Garden (Decca 4145212). In reality there are many other recognisable moments, not least Tonio’s act two Ecoutez moi as he pleads his cause to La Marquise ending with a high B. Juan Diego Florez is the man of our time in this music, this being his third recording as Tonio. He does not have Pavarotti’s open-throated Italianate tone, his voice being smaller and more tightly focused. He can and does ping out those demanding high notes with ease and expression as well as looking and acting the part of the lovelorn young man. As well as the demanding coloratura Marie has moments of poignancy particularly in her duets with Sulpice, superbly sung and acted by the vastly experienced buffa Alessandro Corbeli.

In the second act, set in the drawing room of the Marquise de Berkenfeld’s house, Marie is being trained, La Marquise hopes, in the manners of a lady. She is dressed in an elegant frock and having singing lessons with Sulpice at the piano. Every so often nurture will out and the pair interpose the regimental Rataplan, at least until La Marquise, who has made arrangements for Marie to marry an aristocrat, notices. The mother of the aristocrat is a spoken part taken at Covent Garden by the over-ample Dawn French, a comedienne of British TV fame. In this production the dialogue has been both cut and amended from the original. Dawn French makes somewhat excessive opportunity to ham it up with recourse to English on occasion. This could become tiresome on repeated watching, as it tends to move what is an opera beyond even operetta towards vaudeville or even slapstick. Although Tonio arrives to rescue Marie, I will not spoil it by telling you how, she agrees to the arranged marriage when she is told that the Marquise is in fact her mother. Her mother in turn succumbs to Tonio’s recounted story in Ecoutez moi, relents and agrees to Marie’s marriage to him. In this second act in particular, Felicity Palmer reveals formidable strengths as a singing actress whilst Donald Maxwell uses his India rubber face to excessive effect as Hortensius her servant. The whole is kept fizzing along by Bruno Campanella on the rostrum whilst the video director follows the action without too much interference or camera gimmickry.

This entertaining and idiosyncratic production was shared with Vienna and the New York Met where the singing cast was the same as at Covent Garden. As a show, and that is the best description, it is built around the duo of Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, particularly the former. I cannot imagine any other soprano interpreting Marie in this production with the vocal agility and physical involvement Dessay brings to the role. She is an outstanding singing actress. How many roles in the repertoire are suitable for her histrionic skill I do not know, but they need to be recorded whilst she is in this kind of vocal and all action form.

Throughout this review I have not, as would be my usual habit, cross-referenced my comments to the appropriate Chapters on the DVD. These are not listed in the very sparse, inadequate, accompanying leaflet. I know this issue is available at lower price but it surely costs little to give such information rather than coloured photographs of the production on the four sides of the leaflet. Donizetti, the cast and this production deserve better.

Robert J Farr


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