Laurent Pelly's famous production of La fille du régiment, first seen in Covent Garden in 2006, finally arrived in San Francisco. This made this occasion an important one for the West Coast opera world. But even more, what makes this production special is the presence of two extraordinary principals – Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez – that once again had the chance to show on stage an extraordinary level of artistry.
Although it was presented only a few years ago, this production directed by Pelly with set designs by Chantal Thomas has already become canonical. This staging offers to the public a mixture of symbolic and literal interpretations of Donizetti's work, originally set during the Napoleonic Wars and here updated to the time of the First World War. In act I, gigantic maps stand for the mountains, indicating shifting boundaries between states and cultures; on the fore, the life of the 21st regiment unfolds, with fifteen years old vivandière Marie taking care of and being taken care by the soldiers who have adopted her as a child. In the second act, the Tyrolean landscape recedes to the background, while the main action revolves within and around a room in the Berkenfield's castle, represented with non-existent walls and empty frames.
Pelly is acknowledged as one of the most successful opera directors nowadays. His merits in this production reside in his capacity to push to the extreme the high degree of comicality inherent to Donizetti's work. Yet, however successful he may be in this, I find it at times difficult to empathise with Pelly's and Thomas' reading of this opera, especially in some moments when they seem to stress some unnecessary trivial aspects. One example is the use of huge-postcards descending on stage to comment on some of the scenes, such as the first duet between Marie and Tonio: a huge card on which a love-o-meter is painted appears above the two lovers' head. Tricks like these often end up distracting rather then amusing.
Some other aspects though made this production shine. The main one was was surely the outstanding performance standards set by the two protagonists: Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez.
Damrau had to compete with Natalie Dessay's portrayal of the teenage orphan: Dessay gave life to this production when it was new, and both the role and the dramatic reading were perfectly suited for her innate comic talents. And yet, Damrau demonstrated to have made this role her own. She managed to create a truly consistent and original character: her Marie was a hyperactive and at the same time a responsible and moving fifteen years old girl. What is more, her vocal rendition was practically flawless – and considering the physical challenges that this role poses, this is something to admire.
In addition to the heroic coloratura passages, that she delivered masterfully, Damrau was also deeply touching in the tenderest scenes: at the moment when she decides to obey her familiar duties, her Il faut partir was conveyed through mournfully sweet lines. Her pianissimos made the whole house fall into silence: the public was enjoying Damrau's interpretation and at the same time sympathising with the girl's pain.
As for Flórez, Tonio has now become one of his signature roles. The audience, probably aware of that, went wild for him as soon as he stumbled on stage, surrounded by the soldiers of the 21st regiment that had taken him as a prisoner. Flórez proved to deserve fully the crowd's cheers. His vocal rendition was precise, bold, and delicate at the same time. In her recent interview, Damrau commented on her partner's easiness in portraying this role: 'It's our third production together – we did Barbiere at the Met, and Rigoletto in Dresden, and now here we are. And he can sing this role backwards at three o'clock in the morning!'. Indeed, there was no sign of uncertainty, and that helped Flórez to make his character a truly consistent one.
Bruno Praticò brought on stage a touching and vigorous Sulpice. His soft timbre was at times overpowered by the orchestra, but overall his interpretation was solid and convincing. In particular, the moments when he showed himself as a protective and concerned father figure to Damrau were truly emotional. The relationship between Sulpice and Marie was definitely well conceived and choreographed, and both Praticò and Damrau delivered it beautifully .
Meredith Arwady's interpretation of the Marquise of Berkenfield also matched the artistry of the other performers. This is a difficult role, whose dramatic power resides both on singing and on spoken dialogue. Arwady's reading of the Marquise was a successful one, and her comic flair was brilliantly used to make this production alive.
Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych made his US debut with this La fille. His reading of the score was polished and mostly precise, but not much of the liveliness and colours of Donizetti's work were displayed. Yurkevych's merits reside in the fact that he managed to always follow the singers and to make the music adhere to comic timing, which often required long pauses and abrupt reprises. Some lack of a definite orchestral colour was perceptible. On the other hand, his strette were always precise and incisive, and the pit and stage were always in a harmonious relation.
This La fille was not an perfect achievement but, overall, it made for an entertaining evening. The San Francisco audience is certainly lucky to be able to witness the dramatic and vocal power of Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau, who truly made this production come alive.
Photos credits: Cory Weaver and Terence McCarthy