Laurent Pelly's revival of La Fille du Régiment returned to the Met for its 101st performance on 19 February.
A boisterous tomboy, raised by a group of soldiers from the 21st Regiment, is forced to assume all the airs and graces of an aristocrat.
Donizetti's humorous plot and delightful score has all the elements of a great comic opera, yet Pelly's production, set in the First World War, often stresses unnecessary trivialities which, at times, creates a farcical display.
Chantal Thomas' setting is rather drab with travel maps strangely recurring as the visual background, representing the mountains in Act I and the backdrop behind Berkenfield Castle in Act II. Downstage, in Act II, the sparse scenery consists of gloomy, wood-panelled interiors and non-existent partition walls. The evening's biggest splash of colour is at the final curtain, when a giant postcard picture of a rooster descends from the roof, ending the night with a bizarre 'cock-a-doodle-doo'. These postcard 'tricks', commenting on the action, unfortunately cheapen, rather than enhance, the humour.
Most ridiculous are the props during Act I, when men's undergarments dance, nearly in time to the music, on clotheslines stretched across the stage. Furthermore, during Marie's effectively choreographed 'Au bruit de la Guerre', authentic laundry-washing tools from World War I littered the background, yet Marie was using a white plastic iron!
On the other hand, the two astonishing principals, Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau, saved the production and made it the success that it deserved to be. The audience eagerly anticipated the entrance of Flórez who returned to take up his 'signature role' as Tonio. His athletic workout of the evening, the famous string of high Cs in the Act I 'Ah! mes amis!', brought deserved tumultuous applause. Flórez hit the nine high Cs effortlessly and confidently, without even breaking a sweat. Few singers have the technical ability and theatrical presence to perform this famous firework aria effectively, yet Flórez delivered both the splendid athletic tone and resonance to fill a space the size of which Donizetti certainly did not plan on. His performance both warmed and mesmerised the clearly smitten Metropolitan audience who responded vehemently.
In perfect contrast was his beautiful lyric approach to the slower melodic gem in Act II, 'Pour me rapprocher de Marie'. Flórez performed this extraordinarily paced aria magnificently, with spot-on pitch and a delicate, mature understanding.
For me, Diana Damrau, who was making her debut at the Met playing the role of Marie, stole the show. She projected her tireless voice throughout the gigantic opera house, delivering the notorious Act I aria 'Chacun le sait'with confidence and security in the top notes. Her voice was accompanied by almost perfect diction and gorgeous coloratura that she controlled even as she was flopped over piles of laundry or carried offstage horizontally. Not only did she sing beautifully, doing full justice to Donizetti's tremendous vocal writing, she brought out the comedy of the work splendidly and naturally, something Flórez, at times, failed to achieve. Her performance brought to life all the elements of comic coincidence that are required from Donizetti's tomboy heroine.
Elsewhere, the audience was further entertained with the return of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa to the Met stage. She gave a splendidly comic performance in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, commanding the stage when she appeared. Meredith Arwady as the Marquise and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice also delivered solid performances, filling the evening with good cheer.
The Italian conductor Marco Armiliato did justice to Donizetti's lively and memorable masterpiece, bringing out all its undeniable charm. At times, the orchestra was too heavy for Damrau's smaller numbers and the tempo was a little too laden for the jaunty French military tunes and brisk comic numbers, but the graceful ensemble numbers and sparkling arias filled the evening with elegance.
Saved by virtuosic showcase singing and a star cast, La Fille du Régiment is a revival worth seeing.
By Danielle Brown
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