Donizetti’s La fille du régiment may be the epitome of comic opera and yet this, in itself, places immense challenges on any director. It would be all too easy to make the staging totally light, showing no regard for the serious (and classical) dilemmas presented between love and obligation, and wealth versus happiness. At the same time, who wants to witness a production that doesn’t do full justice to the fun to be gleaned from this most hilarious of creations? Laurent Pelly’s 2007 staging for the Royal Opera achieves a fine balance between the fun and more sober elements. In this highly assured third revival, the few weaker aspects there are result from the small number of areas where the balance is not quite mastered.
The amusing elements include villagers appearing with saucepans on their heads, soldiers tumbling around while singing of courage and discipline, and guests of the Crackentorps at the signing of the marriage contract looking decidedly doddery. Against this, however, the set has immense aesthetic quality. It is slightly frivolous as a rough, mountainous terrain is created out of large maps that describe the topography, but the predominantly light green colour provides an element of restraint. Similarly, when Marie is forced to say farewell to her regiment she drags the washing line that bears the soldiers’ garments, thus applying a bitter twist to a hitherto comical feature of the set.
On opening night Patrizia Ciofi, who also played Marie here in 2012, was recovering from a viral infection. This only really showed at the start of both acts, however, and overall she still put in a tremendous performance; if this was her on a supposedly bad night, I can’t wait to hear her on a good one. Ciofi combines a tomboyish persona with a certain feistiness, and her voice is piercing in the good sense, with its richness and vibrancy being tempered by lightness and purity.
Juan Diego Flórez, reprising his role of Tonio from 2007 and 2010, hits every high note (including all nine high Cs) with an expansive sound that perfectly combines purity with bite. While, however, his performances of ‘Ah! mes amis’ and ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ are particularly impressive, his acting sometimes proves too droll. At the start, he presents himself too much as a dashing figure who is simply enjoying playing the ‘dunce’ that is pushed around. It thus becomes hard to appreciate the strength of his love for Marie, which led him to risk his life to be with her, or the genuine courage he would have needed to take the leap.
Pietro Spagnoli is an excellent Sulpice Pingot, his strong baritone voice combining with a robust presence, jocular persona and roly-poly frame. Donald Maxwell demonstrates brilliant command of comic gesture and timing as Hortensius, while Ewa Podleś as La Marquise de Berkenfeld gives a priceless performance of ‘Pour une femme de mon nom’, introducing just the right level of histrionics to carry the piece off with aplomb.
Following Ann Widdecombe’s disastrous turn as La Duchesse de Crackentorp in 2012 (whose idea was it to give a non-singing role to someone who can’t act?), the Royal Opera is more than compensating now by handing the part to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She delivers her own aria, ‘O fior del giorno’ from Puccini’s Edgar, even handing the music to the conductor via a maid, and her years of stage experience come to the fore in her gestures, mannerisms and timing. She is, however, almost a little too clever and restrained, in that as she exits the stage it is hard to feel that we have just witnessed the most hilarious ‘set piece’.
Yves Abel in the pit conducts with balance and sensibility, and if occasionally he could indulge just a little more in some of the histrionics inherent in the music that it is not to say that the sound is lacking in panache. The orchestra’s performance, in fact, sums up the revival as a whole. It achieves the balance between flair and understatement on ninety per cent of occasions, and as a result proves very strong indeed.
Frédéric Antoun plays Tonio on 15 and 18 March.
The performance on 6 March celebrates Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s 70th birthday. The Royal Opera will give a tribute to mark the occasion.