sat 20/07/2019

La Fille du Régiment, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

La Fille du Régiment, Royal Opera

La Fille du Régiment, Royal Opera

Fair's fair in Donizetti's banterous tale of love, war and Ann Widdecombe

Francophone foolerie, from right to left (Opie, Lee and Ciofi)ROH/Bill Cooper

Since it obviously can't be taken in any way seriously, one big plus for Donizetti’s deeply silly (and, narratively, extremely sketchy) operetta is that it offers everyone plenty of room for manoeuvre(s), an opportunity the Covent Garden team had clearly decided they were not about to miss when putting together this twice-revived production.

It is the Swiss Tyrol, sometime in the heyday of the Napoleonic empire, and the local peasants are fleeing from the advancing French troops. Chief among them is the Marquise de Berkenfeld, an elderly dowager type (beleaguered butler as standard) who sounds like she mightn’t altogether rebuff a couple of French advances. But Sergeant Sulpice of the patriotic 21st Regiment assures everyone that peace and good-neighbourliness will be restored in short order, and then introduces his “daughter”, Marie – the "daughter" of the entire regiment, in fact – who was, we are told, found, Moses-like, on the field of war 12 years ago, and has since become the regimental mascot and washerwoman: a sort of unskilled Florence Nightingale, in trousers – or Minnie the Minx dropped into a short story by Balzac.

So, Tonio and Marie, eh? Will they? Won’t they? (Does anyone actually give a coq?)

Then Tonio turns up (the local love interest – keep up!) to announce his amour for Marie, and the soldiers are all for shooting him as a spy but she pleads for his life on the grounds that he once saved her from falling over a cliff-edge while she was out picking flowers (he did? Well, fair enough then). There’s a lot of hemming and hawwing, though, from the members of the “glorious Twenty-First”, until Marie reluctantly informs our Tonio that she is actually sworn to marry one of them. (Any one, apparently. It doesn’t matter which.)

Now the Marquise returns to request safe passage back to her chateau at Berkenfeld and old Sulpice, sharp as a tack, says, “Hang on a minute, I’ve heard that name before, somewhere, once, over a decade ago, in the heat of a battle, on a letter I found next to the infant Marie though since I apparently can’t read quite how I would recognise the name…” The Marquise – who doesn’t have any children of her own, so far as we’ve noticed, admits that she is Marie’s “aunt”. Oh, and Marie is heir to a tremendous fortune. So Tonio and Marie, eh? Will they? Won’t they? (Does anyone actually give a coq?) And how long till we meet the notaire?

Nonsense aside – and, yes, to short-hand the inevitable comparisons, WS Gilbert did indeed do his own re-write of Donizetti’s Francophone foolerieLa Fille du régiment is all good fun and games and no one even comes close to losing an eye. The cast certainly took to it like pigs in mud.

Patrizia Ciofi played the tomboyish, thatch-haired Marie like a jack-in-a-box that’d lost its box (although to judge from her curtain call, this is just Ciofi’s natural MO), and threw herself onto people, and against things, and under stuff with all the devil-may-care enthusiasm of her character’s character. Her singing was not quite 100 percent (the lower notes had a tendency to disappear, ending the occasional sentence where it shouldn’t); but I don’t think that was made any the worse for her zeal. She was at her best when messing around in the now-I’m-singing-seriously, now-I’m-basically-a-man-in-a-dress hinterlands.

South African tenor Colin Lee was on his third crack at being Swiss Tonio for ROH, and his “oh happy day” big number was as well received as any other solo featuring seven top Cs, with additional plaudits due for the fact that he didn’t try to overcook it. Ann Murray was superbly ridiculous as the traumatised and desperate Marquise de Berkenfeld (especially her alternate straight man/fall guy “singing lessons” with Marie and Sulpice: the singing about singing produced some of the best moments in the opera), and Alan Opie deserves credit for making something out of the Tintin-esque cardboard-cutout sergeant. Donald Maxwell laboured (un)manfully as the infinitely put-upon steward Hortensius.

Which leaves us with Ann Widdecombe. The non-singing Duchesse de Crackentorp - the role twice played in this production by Dawn French - is probably the ideal role for the nation’s favourite pantomime battle-axe (and former Shadow Home Secretary), and although Widdy could probably do with less of the “I’m not really an actress, you know” shtick, her Medway-estuary franglais was amusingly (if lengthily) delievered and there were some neat “what the deuce?” kind of moments when she dropped off into English and the supertitles came up in French. The de rigueur up-dated political gags, though, seemed to have been dashed off on the back of a beermat by someone in a terrible hurry. Ian Hislop, perhaps.

The supertitling in general had gone with the spirit rather than the letter of the original ("Birkenfield", as it was repeatedly rendered, sounds like an old people's home in East Sussex); but then it was all of a piece with the balletic cleaning ladies, Marie’s electric iron (no plug), Chantal Thomas’s massively-larger-than-life set, and an opera that in any case gives over chunks of the chorus to that greatest of French onomatopoeia, “rataplan!”

Though the house band (under Yves Abel) certainly didn’t take itself too seriously, it is undoubtedly Donizetti’s fault that his opéra comique at times hankers to be both opera and comique. Too many longueurs of the woe-is-me variety take up a good proportion of what is still a fairly short opera, Lee’s last great heart-ache aria, for example, falling very much into this bracket of “almost Caruso-parody, and yet not”. Still, it would be unfair not to admit that, in terms of milking La Fille du régiment for everything she is worth, the directorial staff and singers had made the most of every gag that was put in front of them, and probably a fair few that weren’t.

  • La Fille du régiment at the Royal Opera House until 10 May

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