Laurent Pelly's 2007 production of La Fille Du Régiment, now at its second revival at the Royal Opera House, is delightful entertainment as long as the principal singers can deliver. Donizetti's music may be easy for the ear but it makes considerable demands on the main protagonists of the story. Kasper Holten (Director of Opera at ROH) reminds us in the programme notes that ‘in opera we celebrate the capabilities of the human voice'. Without doubt, this applies to La Fille Du Régiment where the plot does not lend itself easily to many layered interpretations of human relationships or to any ideology. Failure or success largely depends on the singers' vocal abilities. Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi (Marie) and South African tenor Colin Lee (Tonio) fully deliver. They both sing as if Donizetti's virtuoso vocal lines (with generous sprinkling of top notes such as seven top Cs for Tonio in ‘Ah! Mes amis', Act I) were second nature to them. The standard was also upheld by veteran singers Ann Murray (Marquise de Berkenfeld), Alan Opie (Sulpice Pingot) and Donald Maxwell (Hortensius). Indeed, throughout the performance we witnessed the admirable capabilities of ‘the human voice'.
Notwithstanding the initial fleeting references to the horrors of war, the light-hearted story cannot help but delight. Found on a battlefield as a baby by French soldiers, Marie is brought up as the daughter of their entire regiment. When she falls in love with the young Tyrolean Tonio during the regiment's advances in Tyrolean mountains, the regiment – all of whom Marie regards as her daddies – first opposes the longed for liaison. But then it transpires that Marie is the niece (actually, the daughter) of the aristocratic Marquise de Berkenfeld who takes Marie to her castle and arranges an aristocratic marriage for her. But Marie is unhappy in her new environment and misses Tonio. A happy end follows when all her previous daddies, that is the entire French regiment, arrive to the castle with Tonio and then her aunt (mother) relents. Marie and Tonio are reunited, the planned aristocratic marriage is off.
Judging by the current revival (directed by Christian Räth), director Pelly appears to be afraid of letting the admittedly somewhat farfetched plot tell itself. He does not seem to trust his audience to decide what may be real or a touch absurd. Perhaps this is the reason why a sense of parody prevails throughout the entire production, yet Donizetti's music beautifully portrays real sadness as well as real joy as the story unfolds.
Marie's tom-boy character was so over played that her romantic falling for the handsome stranger was difficult to believe. Tonio, on the other hand, initially appeared like a slightly irritating, overenthusiastic and overgrown schoolboy who was probable unaware of the facts of life. The costume design (again by Pelly) for the young couple in the first act is also arguable. Would Marie never wear anything even remotely attractive – she appears in trousers and a T-shirt during the whole of Act I - yet she is ironing shirts for her daddies much of her time. Surely, in the reality of Napoleonic war, the vivandière that is those women who, like Marie, followed the army and provided it with food and other care, would at times wear women's clothes?
On the other hand, the character of the Marquise de Berkenfeld was entirely credible. This may be due to the consummate artistry of Ann Murray who portrayed the aristocratic aunt (who eventually admits to be the mother of Marie) with humour but also with sensitivity. And Murray either played the grand piano on stage (during the singing lesson, Act II) with courage, musicality and efficiency or she imitated piano playing brilliantly: either way, I fully believed her in my balcony seat. As I also believed in Alan Opie's playing when he too had a little go on the piano.
I can only guess what the rationale was in casting Ann Widdecombe in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp. Although the first night's audience kindly responded to her English gags (about Strictly, the Olympics and Order in the House) which were included in her French dialogue – and, surprisingly, she had an applause even just entering the stage – I found her presence on the stage of the Royal Opera House embarrassing. Widdecombe may naturally share qualities with the character of the Duchesse de Crackentorp, but she and Ann Murray acting together on stage devalues the concept of arts.
There is lot to be said for singing opera (and, indeed, any vocal compositions) in the original language. But I wonder if there are strong arguments for presenting spoken dialogues too in the original rather than the vernacular. None of the solo singers in the current cast is French, so the rather long French dialogues (with helpful English surtitles for the audience) seemed to miss the point of direct communication.
The ROH chorus and orchestra, under conductor Yves Abel, entered the spirit of opéra comiquewith gusto. Donizetti triumphed.
By Agnes Kory
Photo credits: Bill Cooper