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Image by Nitrox-Marquez courtesy of Iford Arts Music Festival
06 Jul 2014

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

A review by Sue Loder

Above image by Nitrox-Marquez courtesy of Iford Arts Music Festival

Photos by Rob Coles

 

La Fille has certainly been derided over the years for its vulgarity and jingoistic tendencies. Yet dig a little deeper and you find that the canny Donizetti was also in fact essaying a new direction away from the all-conquering Italian opera of his time and, by a slick piece of “art concealing (or revealing?) art”, he was on the way to creating a new style. Indeed he had more than 20 years of compositional experience behind him by the time Fille hit the stage in 1839/40, and he used all his considerable wiles to achieve his aims. Perhaps Theophile Gautier best summed up this work as “facile et spirituelle” — and certainly it seduces with its infectiously gay (in the original sense),light, and bright music as much as it explores the weightier themes of nationalism, feminism and the human response to loss and war, despite skimming over them with a gossamer thread of catchy tunes. So how to bring all this to a tiny space in the Wiltshire countryside?

La Fille du Regiment - Suzy Shakespeare.pngSuzanne Shakespeare as Marie

Director Jeff Clarke and his designers Nigel Howard & Graham Wynne and conductor Toby Purser simply threw away the rule book for this English-language version and solved the production “problems” with panache, wit, imagination and, well, plenty of va-va-vroom. Literally almost, as the Regiment is converted to a South Californian Hell’s Angels-type biker gang, all six of them beautifully kitted out in full leathers, tattoos and bandanas riding some interesting-looking “Darley Havisons”. They are “at war” with a rival gang and so immediately we understand what Clarke is doing and are seduced into this early 1960’s version of the Napoleonic wars. Marsha Berkenfield, social climber in LA, her daintily-camp butler Mr.Hortensius, Sulpice is “president” of the Regiment gang, Dulcie Crackenthorpe an appalling old heiress, Tonio a Hispanic immigrant (serendipitously cast) and Marie as in the original, an orphan “found” by the Regiment as a baby. True, there is the odd surgical cut: no room, literally, for the opening scene with the “Marquess” and Tyrolean peasants praying for deliverance en masse — but apart from that Clarke has kept very close to the original opera. The libretto however was definitely given a far freer rein by Clarke: plenty of choice biker language, plenty of near-the-knuckle anti-Hispanic invective.

Any “Fille” anywhere has always been an opera which stands or falls by the success of its Daughter of the Regiment; over the decades it has been defined by many by the quality of the soprano singing the role of Marie — from Jenny Lind, via the great Dame Joan Sutherland, and on to such modern day successes as Natalie Dessay. So it was a delight and a relief to hear young Australian-born soprano Suzanne Shakespeare take on the mantle with a fearless display of sparkling coloratura, trills and even a few decorations of her own. Her voice has both a warm middle and a shining top: E flats popped with aplomb, yet with “Il faut partir...” her goodbye to the gang in Act One, she found a touching pathos, ably drawn. A bravura performance from start to finish — a young star on the high road for sure. So then, of course, there is the “will he, won’t he” aspect of Tonio’s (in)famous “Mes amis....”. If young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez was nervous, it didn’t show. We might have been nervous for him for in that intimate space and orchestration for just eleven instruments, but yes he delivered all nine of those high Cs with conviction and bang in tune.

La Fille du Regiment - Jesus Alvarez.pngJesús Álvarez as Tonio

However, no matter how thrilling the young leads were, or how convincing their acting, here at Iford it was the role of Sulpice, sung by the excellent Adrian Clarke which held the whole show together. Totally in the part from start to finish, beautifully observed, expressively sung, what a tour de force he gave us. Almost as impressive was Katharine Taylor Jones’ Marsha Berkenfield, a statuesque figure wearing the vintage dresses with assurance and poise, her warm mezzo voice supple through the range. A comically-awful Dulcie Crakenthopre was played in drag by one of the bikers, Philip Cox who obviously had a lot of fun mixing his roles. James Harrison’s mincing butler was the right side of caricature and kept the laughs coming. A word must be said here for the biker gang: sung by Cox, Richard Belshaw, Graham Stone, Martin George, Angus McAllister and Richard Woodall, this was no ordinary “chorus” job. With only six voices to fill out Donizetti’s wonderful music each was a true soloist, each a significant actor. The same must be said of the 11 players of that music: from opening solo trumpet to resounding final chords, nowhere to hide and nowhere needed.

The production team kept it simple but effective with the cloister converted to a tract of dry desert and cacti. The Music Lesson was ingeniously staged with an electronic keyboard masquerading as a grand piano, in turn doing duty as a dance-stage. Clever, witty, and it worked. Which, really, sums up this mini-triumph of the imagination. A must-see if you can.

Sue Loder

La Fille du Regiment (sung in English), Iford Opera, Saturday, July 5th 2014.

Opera della Luna at Iford Opera playing: July 8th, 10th, 12th, 15th, 17th and 19th.

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