Italian opera, composed for the French traditions of opera comique, performed by some of the world’s leading exponents, singing and acting at the top of their game, in a funky, bright, clear, witty production with one of the world’s finest opera companies providing chorus and orchestra. Maybe the sun has got to me over the weekend, but La Fille du Régiment at Covent Garden struck these eyes and ears as damn-nigh perfect.
Oh, alright, there are a few quibbles. The orchestral playing started a little ragged; the lead tenor may have over-milked some of the big moments; the lead soprano may have given the impression of sailing a little close to the edge; you could carp about a well-known British comedienne overdoing it in the cameo role; maybe the old bat was a bit less old-battish than the last occupant of the role; and maybe there is a lingering doubt that the material is all being held up by the sheer energy with which it’s being attacked. But all of those niggles really don’t tarnish a bright, shiny, fabulous evening…
Bruno Campanella, with extravagant gestures, led the overall proceedings. The overture took some time to settle, but as the evening progressed there was security in abundance and everything was just motoring on all cylinders. The tenor doing the milking was, of course, the astonishing talent that is Juan Diego Florez. His ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’, however elegantly and stupendously sung, came to a very slow, indulgent close. Examples such as this aside, his overall performance was nothing short of astonishing. ‘Ah mes amis, quel jour de fête!’ was received with rapturous applause and cheering the like of which I cannot readily recall. The voice may not be large, but it is unflaggingly attractive and easy-going, with an effortless agility married to an acting range that easily encompasses the role’s requirements. He is remarkable.
Dessay is a little more problematic, but it is a tribute to her astonishing energy and commitment that she bulldozes through with winning charm. Her voice still has its bright sheen at moments; at others it is clearly more of an effort. When she was reunited with the soldiers in act 2 (before they re-entered to save her proper) her jubilant song ended with coloratura despatched as per the Dessay of old, and in her ovation two jubilant hands sprung from the midst of the crowd that submerged her to display victory signs to the audience. Good on her. Elsewhere, there’s no sense that she can’t do it, just the slight nagging sense of the effort involved and a slight breathy smudginess that fogs her acrobatics. (But hey, Bartoli’s had a fabulous career built on that foundation for years…) The acrobatics – physical alloyed to vocal – remain a crucial part of the utterly stellar presentation of the role. She irons exuberantly, is carried sideways and otherwise struts, leaps and pratfalls – all whilst singing the coloratura – like the tomboy character that this Marie is. She also achieves an inward intensity which makes the beautifully-sung poignant moments completely crushing, and her previously- athletic body becomes frail and vulnerable. She is a force of nature, not an opera singer. Absolutely mind-blowing. One moment that was utterly inspired was as she lugged pans around the stage to sit down and peel potatoes whilst muttering to herself in furious and animated frustration, occasionally pausing to despatch a ferocious ‘Jamais!’ or ‘Non!’ to the audience. It’s a simple moment, but it is a tribute to her performance and the production overall that such an extended comic moment could be carved out. Inspired.
The other roles were no less well-taken, even if the material didn’t give them so much to do. Alessandro Corbelli must be casting of relative luxury for a character – Sulpice, the regiment captain – that does relatively little than provide a comic foil. But of course, with someone of his calibre, he does it with remarkable aplomb. Donald Maxwell reprised his role – more ‘business’ than singing – as La Marquise’s butler, and did so with fabulous detail. Ann Murray makes La Marquise de Berkenfield a more sympathetic character than did Felicity Palmer: sort of put-upon ‘doing the best she knows’, rather than fierce, determined, headstrong matriarch. I confess to partisanship – I think Palmer is stunning in everything she does – so I did feel a little something missing from this particular Berkenfield, but there is hardly anything to fault in Murray’s performance, and she still managed to stand up well to the grotesque Duchesse de Crackentorp of Dawn French.
That particular performance I liked again: a lot. As I said earlier, there is the nagging feeling it’s overdone, but I can’t imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t overdone! The Met got Kiri Te Kanawa in the role; Vienna got Montserrat Caballé. I just can’t imagine it working without such extremity placed in opposition to the tenderness that does exist between Marie and Tonio. And the thawing of La Marquise would surely not work as effectively if La Duchesse was not so utterly monstrous. French’s line ‘And darling, this time don’t be so stingy with the chocolate fountains!’ – duly translated into French by the surtitles – is also damn-near inspired!
The production overall – a well-travelled Laurent Pelly affair – served the material brilliantly. Others have suggested that the weakness of the material is supported by this kind of bright, open, high-energy production, and I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think the piece is weak, just not Donizetti’s strongest. The previous famous production at Covent Garden was with Sutherland and Pavarotti, and I’m sure the singing was amazing – probably better than this team when judged on singing alone – but I can’t imagine a better complete package than this. The athleticism of the cast, their dramatic conviction, all framed by set and costumes that are inventive, very clearly laid out, in an aesthetic which veers between specific, comic-book and generalised. It works brilliantly. If you haven’t got a ticket – and can’t get one (though there are quite a few left for the last two (Colin Lee) performances on 1, 3 June) – then get the DVD. It’s a belter. As was the evening in the theatre. I’m still humming it, and I’m sure I will be all week.
In its genre, I really don’t think it does get any better. Bravo to all concerned.