When Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s opéra comique first appeared at the Royal Opera House in 2007, it featured the star names of Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez and even Dawn French. While they will always be hard acts to follow (they also appeared in the 2010 revival), Patrizia Ciofi and Colin Lee certainly put their own mark on the parts of Marie and Tonio. Direct comparison with their predecessors is both meaningless and unnecessary, but if overall they feel just a tad less flashy, this helps us to hone in on some of the detail in their characters.
The slightly greater level of restraint they demonstrate also works with the nature of the production, which we soon come to realise balances its obvious exuberance with a remarkably high degree of subtlety. True, there are villagers with saucepans on their heads, soldiers tumbling around while singing of courage and discipline, and guests of the Crackentorps looking decidedly doddery. On the other hand, during ‘Quoi! vous m’aimez?’ it is left entirely to the two characters to fill the stage with their gestures and singing, with a sole banner proclaiming ‘Baromètre de l’amour‘ descending as they do so.
Ciofi’s voice is not excessively showy, and remains pure and precise throughout. Through subtle alterations in tone and approach she proves equally adept at executing the comical ‘Il est là, morbleau, le beau Vingt-unième’ and the deeply emotional ‘Par le rang et l’opulence’. Lee, who took on some performances as Tonio in both 2007 and 2010, is also tonally strong, and his ‘Ah! mes amis’ is finely executed. His nine high Cs in no way feel strained and yet still carry the thrill of us knowing that he has put heart and soul into achieving them. The pair also highlight many elements in the two characters, which reveal the initial flaws in their love for each other. With Marie we become acutely aware that at the start it would be within her capability to walk away, and when she gets Tonio to peel her potatoes, it looks as if she is exploiting his love for her. Similarly, it becomes difficult to ignore the fact that Tonio’s love for Marie has inspired not only courage, but also stupidity, as he has risked being killed to reach her.
If there is a pleasing level of restraint amidst these still exuberant performances, the same could be said for Yves Abel’s conducting, which generates excitement while maintaining a sumptuous tone and even pace. Alan Opie is a slick Sulpice Pingot, while two old hands, Ann Murray and Donald Maxwell, excel as the La Marquise de Berkenfeld and Hortensius with their brilliant command of comic gesture and timing.
If only the same could be said of Ann Widdecombe, replacing Dawn French in this revival as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. Hoofing atrociously on Strictly Come Dancing may possess a certain charm and humour. Appearing on the Royal Opera House stage with a French accent and delivery so appalling that they defy belief certainly doesn’t. Widdecombe’s initial silent gestures are only a notch down on French’s own, but the performance nosedives so seriously as soon as she opens her mouth that not even the topical references to Cornish pasties, the Olympics and Strictly can rescue it. I do not object in principle to public names being handed parts such as this, but surely the whole point of a non-singing role is that it should be taken by someone who can act.