sat 19/10/2019

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

La Fille du régiment, Royal Opera

La Fille du régiment, Royal Opera

Donizetti's potboiler bubbles at lowish temperatures, but a star tenor still hits the high Cs

Anything she can do he can do better: Flórez and CiofiAll photos by Catherine Ashmore

Roll up, roll up, to hear Juan Diego Flórez deliver his nine cheek-by-jowl top Cs in the umpteenth performance of Laurent Pelly’s slick, often funny Donizetti comedy. Does the whole thing still fizz? Only up to a point in Christian Räth's revival. Yet I’d still rather see this – or Don Pasquale, or L’elisir d’amore – any number of times than endure any more of the composer’s “unjustly neglected” tinpot tragedies.

Let’s be fair: Covent Garden’s ever-personable Director of Opera Kasper Holten warned us that Patrizia Ciofi was recovering from a virus. And that may have explained the cloudy middle register if not the spread top of her coloratura high jinks as heroine Marie, a French regiment’s tomboy darling but unfortunately for her also the lost daughter of a once-naughty Marquise. It meant, unfortunately, that there was something of a mésalliance with Flórez’s cut-glass, brilliantined tenor, which six years in the role of her Tyrolean lover has done nothing to diminish. She did at least unfurl her arias of pathos in each act with palpable musicality and style, but it wasn’t quite enough for the icing on an ever so slightly stale and wobbly cake.

There’s also the drawback that though Ciofi works overtime on the routine, elle n’a pas [assez] de charme – and charme is what the inimitable creator of the role in this production, Natalie Dessay, had in spades. Flórez gives a brief shot at cute acting as Tonio, the gauche partisan who all too readily deserts his national cause, before stepping to the footlights, looking slightly round-shouldered in his army uniform, to stand and deliver his set pieces. The big number with the Cs, “Pour mon âme”, is infallible and predictably brought the house down; in more sustained legato, the slight bleat intrudes a little.

Ewa Podles and Pietro Spagnoli in Royal Opera Fille du regimentThere's little variety in his arias discs, and it’s not a voice I find I can listen to for long, but then in La Fille du régiment one doesn’t have to. Around him a male chorus produces variable quality – near-inaudible in the Act One “Rataplan” chorus – and ham acting, not much helped by the am-dram routines, a bit of a surprise from choreographer Laura Scozzi now that I’ve seen her unique take on Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, but then she’s not working with dancers here.

Pietro Spagnoli produces firm, bright baritone tone as Sergeant Sulpice, Marie’s No. 1 regimental “daddy”, but mugs a bit too much; he, too, is short on charme. Whereas star Polish contralto Ewa Podleś (pictured with Spagnoli above) cuts with the trademark redoubtable chest notes and makes us actually like her snobbish Marquise de Berkenfeld in Act Two (and isn’t that her playing the piano in Marie’s unsuccessful music lesson?) Here she comes into her own as a kind of Miss Mapp to the Queen Lucia of la Duchesse de Krakentorp, arrived to offer the still unhousetrained Marie a “respectable” marriage. And regal she is, because Dawn French, Pelly’s first grande Duchesse, is now Kiri te Kanawa, no less (pictured below).

Kiri te Kanawa as the Duchesse de KrakentorpPoise she has; breeding, no, because in what I presume is a virtue made out of Kiri’s weird French, La Krakentorp is clearly a Kiwi married in to the European aristocracy. She sings more than a bit, too: namely the arietta “O fior del giorno” from Puccini’s second opera Edgar, an obvious anachronism alongside the Donizetti, but germane to Pelly's pre-WW1 setting. It’s what you might have anticipated from a nearly-70 year old with form (though expect fireworks at Thursday’s birthday performance).

Yves Abel start well with the orchestral pastoral of the overture, surprisingly high-quality stuff from Donizetti, but doesn’t generate the last degree of bounce or lilt to the tuneful score (it doesn’t help that Marie’s camp song can’t really become a proper waltz the way it’s staged). It’s still fun enough, and Chantal Thomas’s design of hilly campaign maps, giant dropped-in sentimental postcards and a skeletal stately room lends distinctive visual style, though playing up the realism makes the war-in-Europe comedy a tad distasteful under the present circumstances. Total escapism this isn’t, but it does a good operatic comedy proud. Now it’s time for the Royal Opera to give us a luxuriously cast G&S Pirates of Penzance – then we’d have the wit in the words as well as in the music.

Podleś comes into her own as a kind of Miss Mapp to the Queen Lucia of Kiri te Kanawa's Duchesse de Krakentorp

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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