La Fille du Regiment. Donizetti. Metropolitan Opera, New York.
Monday 21st April 2008 - opening night.
Juan Diego Florez - Tonio
Natalie Dessay - Marie
Alessandro Corbelli - Suplice (Sergeant Major)
Felicity Palmer - Marquise de Berkenfield
Marian Seldes - Duchess of Krackenthorp (acting role)
Conductor - Marco Armiliato
Production - Laurent Pelly
Sets - Chantal Thomas
In a French-inspired ‘geographic’ alpine production coming via London and Vienna this opera was raised from the relatively superficial to a level equal to anything the Met has done in my experience. The set flooring was made up of five or more overlapped maps of central Europe. Three corners peaked behind as if real mountains while one corner draped naturalistically into the orchestra pit. We had heard from the designer in the introduction that the military were the origin of all maps, obviously for strategic purposes.
Following the plot in which the alpine village is defending itself against the enemy, this extraordinary production opens with a blockade across the entire Met stage. The barrage consisted of furniture, wheeled carts, lumber, garden equipment, bric-a-brac and other household goods, all piled against each other. Most amusingly, a curtained wardrobe in the middle became the temporary refuge for the all-too-sensitive Marquise before it was wheeled off as her unceremonious exit. The next scene sees Marie doing the washing and ironing with bunks set up as a deserted army camp in the open.
Tonio’s arrival caused great mayhem as he was an outsider who had caught the eye of the Regiment’s daring, Marie who was already ‘promised’ to a company soldier when she was old enough. We were told in song that Tonio had risked his life to save Marie from falling to her death while picking flowers. A rare encore was performed by Mr Florez in his famous aria (‘Ah mes amis … Pour mon âme’). This turned the already incredible 9 high C’s into 18. And none was clipped or insubstantial. And most were on ‘the terrible vowel’, ‘a’ (ame, and flame). There was some banter between conductor and tenor during the initial applause and finally the bis was indicated on the conductor’s fingers. A colossal effort! Florez then received one of the few spontaneous standing ovations I have seen at the Met. A friend said it was the only spontaneous standing ovation he had seen in over 50 years of Met openings.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is the darling of the opera world at present and has gone from strength to strength on the world stage adding Olympic-type records to his repertoire. These include the extra scene in Barbiere di Siviglia (others have attempted it but few succeeded so comprehensively). On this Met Gala he sang, danced and acted his way into the hearts (and pockets) of the elite of New York, many of whom had paid well over five hundred dollars for dinner, supper and premium tickets. His act 2 pleading aria was taken as slowly as I have heard it – moving, legato and effective dramatically, quite the opposite of the ‘rapid-fire’ act 1 aria with all the high C’s. Yet both speak of his love for Marie in different company and for different reasons. Both are successful.
Florez was in good company with the quirky and beautiful Natalie Dessay who did a captivating if unusual Lucia recently to great acclaim. In ‘Fille’, she took dramatic control initially as a coquettish tomboy, but revealed the most feminine of attributes in her performance. She took her time. At one point she mumbled incoherently for an age on stage, making a funny skit funnier. She bounced gracefully all over the stage and was carried aloft more than once for her phenomenally difficult cadenzas. Singing a high E flat while being carried aloft must be unique. Dessay’s ‘Il faut partir’ was dramatically moving and vocally flawless.
Both lovers were aided by a fine natural comedian, Alessandro Corbelli as Suplice who ends up marrying the Marquise. He had sung Gianni Schicchi last year with great acclaim. Well known Broadway actress Marian Seldes played the Duchess of Krackenthorp with great aplomb. She partnered Angela Lansbury in Deuce last year.
Act two took place on the same set but with an entire ballroom floor positioned diagonally across the stage. It was wedged up from the existing stage floor with (you-guessed-it) rolled up maps! The formal entrance, windows, pictures, fireplace and servants’ door were all hollow black frames. Stage left was a grand piano used for the famous singing lesson scene - and actually played by Ms Palmer as she coached Marie in a genteel song which always seemed to have a rhythmic, regimental second subject. The Met chorus made up a brilliant band of soldiers (see photographs of uniform on web site) and in the second act a ludicrous bunch of geriatric invitees for the arranged marriage (initially minus groom, then minus bride as well!).
This clever production contained more small comic details than one could possibly write about in a review. At one point early in the opera the townsfolk sing to the Madonna to save them from the advancing enemy. Momentarily the haughty Marquise thinks they are singing to her! The soldiers’ rescue comes in the form of a mechanised army tank rolling onto stage right, machinery sound effects and all! Tonio sang atop the tank as if in a war zone. While the French dialogue had been rewritten it all seemed perfectly attuned to the story. Also, it occasionally broke into English, each time to comic effect.
At the end there was a phenomenal ovation. The crowds screamed for Mr Florez and his paramour. Each time they took a bow it sounded like the stadium crowd roaring over a winning goal.
This may be the most exciting opera performance I have seen since the Sutherland days. I wrote later that night on the internet that the notices should be on the FRONT pages of the papers - and I was right! [see New York Times 23 April]
Comments by Andrew Byrne ..
Review of Toti dal Monti in ‘Fille du Regiment’ in 1928:
Short review of Fille du Regiment Gala written on the night:
Review of Met Open Day and Rehearsal of Fille du Regiment.
Beverly Sills doing the final scene at The Daughter of the Regiment
Wolf Trap Festival 1974. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUhvGMVnKMo
YouTube item from this production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aS6M8j3pvQ
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