It’s hard to imagine Donizetti’s feather-weight farce La fille du régiment being attempted by any but the finest opera houses. So dependent is this piece on inspired and authoritative direction, and exceptionally gifted singers, that anything less would surely end in disaster. When Laurent Pelly’s staging premiered at Royal Opera in 2007 it was hailed as triumph on all counts.
Now back for its first revival, and boasting most of the original cast, the production, here directed by Elaine Kidd, is a sure-fire hit. The previous performances by Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay set a benchmark for the two main roles but, as this second collaboration shows, it is not just their vocal capabilities that impress. As Marie, the eponymous daughter of the regiment, Dessay is feline, tomboyish, charismatic, and she channels huge energy into comic effect it helps, too, in this respect, that she is a native French speaker. As Tonio, her lover, Flórez comes across as sensitive without compromising the character’s virility.
Both appear entirely comfortable in their parts, and with each other, their voices melding easily, but nothing is taken for granted. Dessay’s lithe soprano displays agility and control both in the fiendish coloratura runs that thread through the piece and the rare moment of introspection that comes with “C’en est donc fait Salut France”. Flórez’s tenor is similarly bright and fluid, and easily capable of the feats required: the opportunity to hear “Ah, mes amis” sung so gloriously each of those high Cs hit not just squarely and securely but with such polish! is rare indeed.
A superb supporting cast adds even more to evening and conductor Bruno Campanella can be credited for his lively and engaging account of the score. Alessandro Corbelli returns to sing the bumptious Sulpice, his baritone sounding well-rounded and resonant, and Ann Murray, a newcomer to this production, makes an impressive La Marquise de Berkenfeld. Inevitably, however, it is Dawn French, in the formidable speaking role of La Duchesse de Crackentorp, who gets the best reception from the audience.
Chantal Thomas’ ingenious set designs giant crumpled maps suggesting the geography and landscape of the Tyrolean mountains in the first act, superimposed with a wood-panelled framework for the Berkenfeld castle in the second act provide a strong sense of setting while allowing a great deal of freedom and fluency on stage. This production is hugely impressive and with the current line-up it’s hard to imagine the opera being bettered.