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La Fille du régiment (Royal Opera)

Donizetti's comic confection returns to Covent Garden with an unexpected guest star

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment was new seven years ago, I hated it. It wasn't just the dodgy novelty casting but the whole attempt to turn opera into TV sitcom that rankled. In the intervening years, either I've mellowed or the production has; Pelly at his most gratuitous is now just about bearable.

Dame Kiri te Kanawa as La Duchesse de Crakenthorp in La Fille du régiment
© Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera

For all the comedy peasants, comedy drunks, funny walks and choreographed business, it's still not that funny. It was greeted at the first night of this run with polite titters rather than the outright belly laughs it seems to be aiming for.

The thing is that, apart from the spectacular "Ah! mes amis" with its run of high Cs and Marie's touching farewell to the troops, it's just not Donizetti at his most inspired and any attempt to bring it to life is going to cause strain. The story of a tomboy torn from her beloved regimental life and forced to be a toff just about holds together but it's never going to rival the composer's Don Pasquale or L'elisir d'Amore for comic brilliance.

What it does is provide the leading couple with opportunities to make the audience ooh and ahh, and when they are Juan Diego Flórez and Patrizia Ciofi there's justification for the star worship.

Flórez is of course one of the biggest names in the opera world and can do virtually no wrong. Ciofi too has won the hearts of the London audience before now and, even when ailing, can spin off Donizetti's demanding lines with assurance. Together they make the evening, with the tenor's polished accuracy giving him the edge.

Instead of some of the more wayward casting this production has seen (rock bottom when ex-politician Ann Widdecombe had a go), this run at least sees a polished pro in the role of La Duchesse de Crakentorp. She'll be celebrating her 70th birthday on this stage at the second performance of La Fille later this week and it's a popular return to Covent Garden for Dame Kiri de Kanawa.

Inserting Puccini's "O fior del giorno" from Edgar into the piece was something Ms Widdecombe or Dawn French were never going to do (thank goodness!) and it hardly brought back the glory days of the dame played as it was for outright laughs, but it was marginally less pantomime than earlier incarnations.

Elsewhere, casting is solid for this re-run, revived by Christian Räth. Donald Maxwell is reliable in the knockabout role of Hortensius and Ewa Podleś, doing La Marquise de Berkenfield for the first time at the Royal Opera, is fruitily hammy. Pietro Spagnioli is effective as a roly poly cartoon Sulpice.

Yves Abel brings gallic bounce to the lightly fizzing score (more cava than vintage champagne) and orchestra and chorus serve well.

There's something very old-fashioned about this sort of entertainment, which will refresh many tired of provocative directors re-fashioning classics to their own liking and, if others are offended by that, they can always shut their eyes and enjoy some glorious singing.