Minor bel canto it may be, but in Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production, the first at Covent Garden in four decades, La Fille du régiment is a major operatic hit. A combination of star quality, athletic singing and vivacious acting made it the toast of the year, earning an Olivier Award for its leading lady and a New Year slot on BBC television.
Now here it comes again, company (largely) intact, in a smashing revival, and a special regimental salute goes to revival director Elaine Kidd for recapturing all the wit and verve from that earlier incarnation. It must have helped that her principals know their way around this staging so well, having travelled with it to Vienna and the Met, but the whole company’s ensemble work is exemplary in its precision, not least the Royal Opera Chorus who are as dynamic here as they were underpowered for La traviata a few days previously.
The plot of La Fille du régiment rests on platefuls of Gilbertian lunacy. Marie, a foundling child, was raised by the regiment and calls its soldiers ‘mes papas’. She is content to skivvy for them until Tonio, a handsome young partisan, shows her there is more to life than ironing and spud bashing. No sooner has Marie fallen in love than she learns the truth about her birth (aristocratic, naturally) and her simple life is shot to pieces. Still, come what may – and it does – a happy ending is never in doubt.
We can deal with the performances in short order. Natalie Dessay’s tomboy Marie achieves vocal miracles amid feats of physical comedy; Juan Diego Flóres as Tonio still has the top-C chops and stops the show in each act; Alessandro Corbelli, bald and moustachioed, remains a honey-toned buffoon of a Sulpice. As the non-singing Duchesse de Crackentorp Dawn French earns her laughs for little more than being Dawn French, while Ann Murray, the only newcomer to the cast, evokes fond memories of her double-act with Felicity Lott as a piano-playing, comically sardonic Marquise de Berkenfeld.
Bruno Campanella draws stylish playing from the ROH Orchestra (there is a gorgeous cello solo under Dessay’s C’en est donc fait in Act Two) and maintains a sparkling rhythmic control over Donizetti’s (and Pelly’s) often manic proceedings.
All too frequently, comic opera falls flat on its face because directors are bereft of comic ingenuity. Laurent Pelly shows them the way: he is so witty and so musically keen that his production of La Fille du régiment is awash with inventive bliss. He doesn’t need to resort to sexy sight gags or flushing toilets; he has proper ideas instead, hilarious ones, and I lost count of the number of times I laughed out loud at some fleeting moment of cleverness.
Pelly’s happiest knack is to treat the busy chorus as a major character rather than singing wallpaper. They have some terrific business (keep an eye on the riflemen in Act One and the house guests in Act Two). He also stages Dessay’s coloratura runs as comic set pieces and fires up even the most prosaic episodes with visual pizzazz. He is matched by Chantal Thomas’ map-and-postcard set but not, alas, by moody, excessively localised lighting (by Joël Adam) that chills the Tyrol and makes Berkenfeld Castle look like something out of Lucia di Lammermoor.
- Mark Valencia