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Diana Damrau (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]
25 Oct 2009

La Fille du Régiment in San Francisco

There is a buzz of excitement in the War Memorial Opera House on Friday nights that is akin to the Saturday afternoon buzz at the Met.

G. Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment

Marie: Diana Damrau; Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez; Sulpice: Bruno Praticò; The Marquise of Berkenfeld: Meredith Arwady; The Duchess of Krakenthorp: Sheila Nadler; Hortensius: Jake Gardner; Corporal: Kenneth Kellogg; Peasant: Chester Pidduck; Notary: Keith Perry. Conductor: Andriy Yurkevych. Director: Laurent Pelly. Associate Director: Roy Rallo. Dramaturg: Agathe Mélinand. Set Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Original Lighting Designer: Joël Adam. Choreographer: Karine Girard.

Above: Diana Damrau (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]


Unlike the more serious Saturday night audience or the sleepy Sunday afternoon audience these aficionados are truly excited and ready to be entertained. At least a few, and maybe many in the Friday night audience (10/16) were able to make a direct comparison of Laurent Pelly’s live on-stage Fille du Régiment in San Francisco to the canned Live from the Met in HD version (there is a two minute delay) they saw at a movie palace near you last April.

Laurent Pelly heads France’s Théåtre National de Toulouse, and has quite a string of big time opera credits as well. He created this production of Donizetti’s opéra comique at Covent Garden in early 2007. Its heroine was none other than Natalie Dessay, in France nearly as prominent a national figure as Carla Bruni, and in the rest of Europe and America accepted as one of the greater divas of the moment. Mr. Pelly used Mme. Dessay’s manic personality and her former ballerina physicality to create Marie, the daughter of the regiment. It was, if you believe the manic British critics, a marriage made in operatic heaven, Mr. Pelly’s comic book fantasies sublimely embodied in a great diva.

Of course La Fille du Régiment is not just about Marie, because Tonio loves Marie and enlists in the Regiment to gain her hand in marriage. But what Tonio is really about are nine high C’s, and, well, later there is a D-flat to boot. Juan Diego Florez in lederhosen is the epitome of delightful comic book caricature, not to mention the epitome of bel canto style as well as the master of the thrilling and easy high C. Mr. Pelly’s production at Covent Garden (and a few months later in Vienna) boasted Mr. Florez’ high C’s, as did the Met Live in HD in April 2008, and just now has San Francisco!

San Francisco has had the additional good fortune to boast German soprano Diana Damrau as Marie, sparing us the adulation demanded by more famous divas, especially when they have accomplished a tour de force. It was very hard not to think of Mme. Damrau’s Marie as an imitation of Natalie Dessay, as she did everything exactly as had la Dessay. Except that Mme. Damrau is a very fine singer, not yet showing signs of vocal wear and tear, and is a far more convincing performer. It took most of the first act to allay the irritation of imitation (wishing that this fine artist could have created her own Marie), and be won over by Mr. Pelly’s style as realized by la Damrau.

The San Francisco performances have had much more to boast about. The Marquis de Berkenfeld of Meredith Arwady is a masterwork of a comic book personage. She provided a delicious caricature of the French language in the dialogues, her broad American twang apparent to all ears, and made her comedic joie contagious while her sizable low mezzo voice and presence commanded this role that must obstruct (but only briefly) the fulfillment of young love. Not to mention the fully satisfying, grand characterization of the spoken Duchess of Krakenthorp by an old opera broad, Sheila Nadler — not the peculiar insertion of ancient actresses that amused, maybe, audiences in London and New York.

Sergeant Sulpice was effectively enough rendered in San Francisco by Bruno Pratico who had sung the role in Houston, replacing Alessandro Corbelli who created the role at Covent Garden and appeared on the Met’s Live in HD as well. Jake Gardner was a careful and supportive Hortensius.

By the second act on the War Memorial stage Laurent Pelly’s production became less a star vehicle and more a coherent theater piece, perhaps due to a set that now at least established clear spacial perimeters in which Donizetti’s voice lesson could be drawn in detail, and Diana Damrau could show her considerable stuff as a bel canto heroine. Her red wig with its turned up fixed pigtail gave her the requisite character abstraction within Mr. Pelly’s intent to comically objectify Donizetti’s sentimental and, Mr. Pelly must have thought, corny story. In fact the ah gee isn’t that sweet factor that we would crave in a more straightforward telling of this silly story was replaced by groan of amused disbelief when Tonio and the regiment arrived to rescue Marie on a WWI tank.

The weakness of Mr. Pelly’s production was its setting, designed by his longtime collaborator Chantal Thomas, that did little to define or support his comic abstractions, offering confusing decoration in the first act (maps on the floor and walls) and a too simplistic outline of a house, like an uninspired theater set, in the second act. But Mr. Pelly’s clever, always tasteful stage antics, often enacted on the stage apron provided ample opportunity for his performers to amuse and charm the audience, and that they did.

In London the production was conducted by Bruno Campanella and in New York by Marco Armiliato, both recognized masters of bel canto. In San Francisco the conductor was Andriy Yurkevych, music director of the Ukrainian National Opera, who suppressed the soaring musicality and rhythmic vitality of the Donizetti score in favor of a square beat that deadened tempos and fostered musical drudgery. Otherwise this production could have provided some of the more splendid evenings of this San Francisco Opera fall season.

It is no contest as to what is the more satisfying medium, the big screen or the big stage. The stage allows a constant context within which characters musically and dramatically develop, and provides the distance needed to objectify the super size and overwrought musicality of opera. The big screen too easily forces a close-up focus that must move constantly to keep us visually involved, and thereby insists on personality rather than on character. The Met Live in HD was a big dose of Mme. Dessay. Of some comedic interest was the camera catching up with Dessay and Florez as they left the stage after the first act finale, and Mr. Florez’ revelation that he was wearing his own underwear.

Michael Milenski

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