This performance of Donizetti's Opéra Comique, La Fille du Régiment, was the first revival of the production at the Royal Opera House since it opened to great acclaim in 2007. However, by virtue of the fact that it is a co-production with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York, it has never been far off the operatic radar, attracting attention for its starry casts and immense popularity with audiences wherever it has been performed. The principal roles have now been taken by various artists, including Diana Damrau and Lawrence Brownlee in New York, but these London performances are reuniting the duo for whom the production was originally conceived, Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez.
The title role from the outset has been an unashamed vehicle for a star soprano, Covent Garden having seen performances by such legendary names as Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti and of course Dame Joan Sutherland for whom the only performances of the piece at the Royal Opera in the 20th Century were mounted. Natalie Dessay's name may not be destined for the same kind of operatic immortality, but there can be no doubt that she brings something unique to the role. Her extremely energetic, tomboy characterisation of Marie was engaging and entertaining, making much of the spoken dialogue and emphasising the comedy wherever possible. She is undeniably one of the most arresting actresses on the operatic stage today, and her commitment to her dramatic portrayal was exceptional. Unfortunately, she was less successful vocally. The military affect of much of the writing caused Dessay to attempt a punchy, emphatic delivery which caused her sound to suffer in terms of volume, focus and richness. The long, legato lines of 'Il faut partir' inspired a less driven approach that, conversely, led to a better projected, more beautiful sound, but attempts at pianissimo notes and phrases caused the voice to cut out on more than one occasion, and glimpses of any authentic bel canto line were rare.
As Tonio, Juan Diego Florez gave a performance that was up to his own consistently high standards with all the spot on top notes and beautifully sustained phrasing one has come to expect from him. The famous cabaletta of 9 high cs fame, 'pour mon âme', lacked a little of the anticipated impact because the relaxed tempo at which it was taken rather diminished the inherent element of risk in the piece, but in Tonio's Act II aria 'Pour me rapprocher de Marie' the evenness of tone throughout the range, the long-breathed, finely sculpted lines and the daringly honed down dynamics were hugely impressive and very moving. His youthful, natural characterisation was a delight and the on-stage chemistry with Dessay was a great success.
Ann Murray as the Marquise gave a masterful portrayal of comic pomposity and refinement, equally adept in the dialogue, the singing and, it seemed, the piano playing. Her entrance aria 'Pour une femme de mon nom' was a real treat, packed with character and vigour. Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice and Donald Maxwell as Hortensius were similarly adept at portraying their comic roles with excellent French and a brilliantly relaxed understanding of the style.
The wild card in the casting of this opera is always the speaking role of La Duchesse De Crackentorp. Vienna got Montserrat Caballe, New York most recently got Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and in London, as when the production was new, we got Dawn French. While French's performancefelt familiar from much of her television work, it was hugely amusing and worked well in the context of the production. Essentially a caricature, she commanded the stage easily and mixed haughtiness and baseness, English and French to great effect.
Laurent Pelly's production seeks to be highly entertaining in much the same way, generally successfully, and gets one on the side of Marie and Tonio from the outset. It is just unfortunate that Pelly seems to want to send up both the Regiment, the upper classes and, worse, the opera itself wherever possible. Parodies of the opera comique genre exist in abundance, not least amongst the works of Offenbach, with which Pelly has had some fantastic hits, but what distinguishes the real thing from the parodies is a fundamental sincerity that drives the characters, as we are reminded by Sarah Lenton in her excellent essay included in the programme. Pelly does not appear to have adequately appreciated the difference, and although he is sensitive enough to the work not to mess with the staging of the principal characters' pathos-laden slow arias, the general context of the production in which such moments take place detracts from their emotional impact.
The orchestra, under the direction of Bruno Campanella, was on excellent form with sprightly percussion punctuating the marshal music and a particularly fine cor anglais solo during 'Il faut partir'. The chorus, too, did a fantastic job with robust sonority, clear text and committed acting.
By John Woods
Photo Credit: Bill Cooper