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Natalie Dessay as Marie and Juan Diego Flórez As Tonio [Photo by The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper]
20 May 2010

La Fille du régiment, Royal Opera

Expectations were running high for the opening night of Elaine Kidd’s revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s mad-cap romp, La Fille du regiment — almost as high as Tonio’s infamous top Cs.

Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du régiment

Conductor: Bruno Campanella;Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez; Marie: Natalie Dessay; Sulpice: Alessandro Corbelli; La Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ann Murray; Hortensius: Donald Maxwell; La Duchesse de Crackentorp: Dawn French. Director: Laurent Pelly. Associate Director/Dialogue: Agathe Mélinand. Revival Director: Elaine Kidd. Set Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Joël Adam. Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Monday 17th May 2010.

Above: Natalie Dessay as Marie and Juan Diego Flórez As Tonio

All photos by The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper


First staged to glorious reviews in 2007, in fact this co-production with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York, has seldom been ‘out-of-production’ during the last two years; but Covent Garden has reassembled almost all the members of the original stellar cast, re-uniting French soprano, Natalie Dessay, as the gamine, gambolling Marie, with Juan Diego Flórez’ charming, heart-winning Tonio.

Even by the standards of 1840s opéra comique, the libretto is wildly implausible. But Pelly relishes the improbabilities and excesses, envisaging Donizetti’s trifle as a Gilbert & Sullivanesque caper; his staging abounds with visual gags which inject much energy humour into the text, which is itself enlivened by some smart one-liners (‘It’s raining soldiers’) and a co-mingling of English and French which neatly complements the franglais accents on stage. Certainly, the manic visual stimuli — lines of dancing long-johns, balletic dusting routines, a coup de théâtre tank - deftly keep at bay any potential dramatic languors; but, while satire is undoubtedly a vital element of the genre there is perhaps a danger that Pelly’s farce indulges in just a touch too much self-ridicule — surely Donizetti is sincere in his flippancy and frivolity?

As the regiment’s adopted daughter/skivvy, Natalie Dessay is certainly committed: from her first entrance — stumbling beneath a toppling mound of regimental laundry — she flounces and flops, stamps and strops, wildly throwing herself around the stage in a ceaseless comic routine à la Chaplin. Not afraid to squawk and screech, she savours the dialogue, spitting out Gallic ‘Merde!’s a-plenty, and confirms her reputation as one of the finest actors currently on the operatic stage. This is fast becoming a signature role — and indeed it is hard to imagine this production without Dessay — but there some alarming signs of dramatic and vocal wear-and-tear. Her comic timing may be exemplary, with coloratura pinging perfectly to a twang of the braces; and the top Ds and Es may ring true and clear even as she is tossed and twirled by her military ‘daddies’; but the price to pay for such a breath-taking performance may literally be the taking of Dessay’s breath. On more than one occasion she seemed exhausted by her own exuberance and, worryingly, in quieter moments her voice became rather pale, on occasion fading completely. Punching out the regimental song as she darted up and down the map-inscribed mountains of Chantal Thomas’s Act 1 set, Dessay effectively captured the drive and ambition of the military milieu, but if familiarity breeds excess and exaggeration, there is a danger that her performance could become a caricature of itself.

If Dessay never quite attained a true bel canto lyricism, Juan Diego Flórez’ light, high tenor is perfect for this part. Nonchalant leaps to the 9 successive high Cs in ‘Ah, mes amis’ were more than matched, even outshone, by a moving, tender declaration of love in his Act 2 aria, ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’. Although the voice is a little unyielding, the homogenous, even beauty of tone is astonishing, and it was hard to believe that the sweet, tenderness of the daringly hushed closing phrase could fail to touch the heart of the daughter-denying Marquise de Berkenfeld.

LA-FILLE-BC20100514204-(C)B.gifDawn French as La Duchesse De Crackentorp and Ann Murray as La Marquise De Berkenfeld

For all Pelly’s attention to dramatic detail, there was however a disappointing absence of genuine ‘chemistry’ between the star pair. Fortunately, Ann Murray’s self-important Marquise and Alessandro Corbelli’s soft-hearted Sulpice more than made up for this lack of erotic spark, with masterly embodiments of haughty elegance and paternal indulgence respectively. Her voice may lack some of its former sheen, but Murray knows how to command a stage and her entrance aria, 'Pour une femme de mon nom', was instantly engaging and convincing. Amusingly accompanying Dessay at the piano during the singing-lesson scene, she more than matched the master Corbelli for comic timing.

Queen of TV comedy, Dawn French, in the speaking role of the Duchess de Crackentorp, reprised her Vicar of Dibley trademarks, eliciting laughs by the mere raising of the eyebrow and stopping just a whisker short of overkill. Donald Maxwell as Hortensius completed the ‘dream cast’. They were complemented by a superb male chorus, although their female counterparts, admittedly less busy, were not quite up to the rest of the regiment’s mark.

LA-FILLE-BC20100514024-CORB.gifAlessandro Corbelli as Sulpice Pingot

Bruno Campanella conducted a rather scruffy performance from the Royal Opera House orchestra: although the pit-stage balance was excellent, the tempi were a bit ragged, and cast and band were occasionally out-of-step. However, things tightened up in the second Act, and a stunning solo ’cello introduced Dessay’s ‘C’en est donc fait’.

Florez’ light elegance shows no signs of waning, but Dessay can surely not reprise this role indefinitely. Although her Marie is at times less hyperactive tomboy and more hysterical Lucia, this is not a show to miss. Grab a ticket — even if you have to mount a military campaign to hunt one down.

Claire Seymour

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