12 Mar 2014

La Fille du regiment, Royal Opera

Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.

Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production is now in the hands of revival director Christian Räth, who also directed the 2012 revival. The production was created for Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, but since 2012 the title role has been sung by the Italian lyric soprano Patrizia Ciofi (see Claire Seymour’s review of the 2012 revival). For this revival Ciofi was joined by Florez (with two performances later in the run being sung by Frederic Antoun). Also returning to the role as Hortensius was Donald Maxwell and conductor Yves Abel was also on the podium for the 2012 revival. With so many returning performers, it is inevitable that the newcomers to their roles would be the focus of attention: Pietro Spagnoli sang Sulpice and Ewa Podles was the Marquise de Berkenfeld. But the eyes and ears of many in the audience were on Dame Kiri te Kanawa in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp.

The New Zealand soprano celebrates her 70th birthday during the present run, and her assumption of the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp represents her first appearance at Covent Garden since the 1996/97 season. At Covent Garden the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp has previously been played by Dawn French and by Anne Widdicombe, but when Laurent Pelly’s production has appeared elsewhere then the Duchess has been played by both Kiri te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballe.

Ciofi made a charming Marie, she has the right combination of gamine charm and chutzpah which Pelly’s conception of the role requires. Physically Ciofi’s performance was almost hyper-active, reflecting the current conception of the production, and she is certainly a gifted comic. Natalie Dessay’s physical comedy in the role must have been a difficult act to follow, but Ciofi makes it her own. Vocally Ciofi has quite a soft grained lyric voice, which meant that the more poignant moments (such as her lovely act 2 aria) worked very well. There was plenty of fluent passagework too, and Ciofi has the gift of being able to imbue this with charm as well, she made the vocal fire-works part of the character. Her acuti sometimes seemed a little pressed and with a little too much vibrato for my taste, but she has been ill and missed part of the dress rehearsal, so it is unfair to judge.

Juan Diego Florez remains in fine form, his voice perhaps a little heavier and more solid than when he first sang the role, but he is still technically superb. Despite the lure of the famous act 1 solo with the repeated top C’s, it was his two slower arias which stick in the memory. Here Florez had a knack of slowing time, and causing the busy activity to stop. He can caress and shape a phrase without it being made to feel self-indulgent, and in these solo moments was deservedly the entire focus of attention. The role of Tonio still fits Florez stage persona well, the little-boy lost look still coming over charmingly.

Pietro Spagnoli was a delight as Sulpice with good comic timing combined with a neat way with Donizetti’s vocal line. His act one solo isn’t the best number in the opera, but Spagnoli charmed and made a fine contribution to the act two trio with Ciofi and Florez. More than that, he created a warm and very funny character.

Ewa Podles is clearly a gifted comic actress, as Marquise de Berkenfeld she used her voice to fine comic effect particularly the astounding lower register. Both vocally and in spoken dialogue she made the comedy work and set up a nice double act with Donald Maxwell’s Hortensius. Podles might now have a noticeable break in her voice, but her technique is still in fine form and there was as much to admire vocally as dramatically.

Kiri te Kanawa seemed less at ease with the comic business required, but the role was extended for her and we got to hear her performing an aria from Puccini’s Edgar which was finely done, albeit rather a strange choice in the context. The smaller roles were well taken with Bryan Secombe as the Corporal, Luke Price as a peasant and Jean-Pierre Blanchard as the Notary.

Now directed by Christian Räth , the production seems to have become almost a caricature of itself, all stylised movement, comic business and hardly any naturalism. Was Pelly’s production like this when new? I’d don’t remember it as such, but might be wrong. There is a danger, I think, of this becoming a comic caricature of a production. Most worryingly, the physical comedy seemed to be in danger of being an end in itself, rather than arising out of the music.

The orchestra was in the capable hands of Yves Abel. He and the orchestra provided fine accompaniments to the arias, but the overture did rather take a long time to catch fire.

This is the production’s third revival, that’s a total of four runs since 2007 which is quite a lot of exposure. It would make an interesting re-boot of the piece if, say, it was given in English with Anglophone actors performing the dialogue (at the moment we have a variety of nationalities performing in French), or perhaps investigate the Italian version which Donizetti himself created in 1840 (this lacks the famous top C’s of the tenor Ah mes amies, but the replacement aria is not without difficulty). I am reluctant to suggest that such a popular production be given a rest but perhaps something of a re-think is certainly in order.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Marie: Patrizia Ciofi, Tonio: Juan Diego Florez, Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ewa Podles, Sulpice: Pietro Spagnoli, Hortensius: Donald Maxwell, Corporal: Bryan Secombe, Peasant: Luke Price, Notary: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Duchesse de Crackentorp: Kiri te Kanawa. Director: Laurent Pelly, Revival Director: Christian Räth, Dialogue: Agathe Melinand, Set Designs: Chantal Thomas, Lighting Design: Joel Adam, Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Conductor: Yves Abel. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: 3 March 2014.