With director Laurent Pelly in the audience and a reputation for genuine hilarity, this production of Donizetti’s comedy launched into its fourth revival with gusto. It’s a bit of a slow-burn, this story of an abandoned baby raised by an entire regiment. But the humour cranks up step by step, from clowning – from Italian baritone Pietro Spagnoli as the sergeant, with his giant buttocks and the villagers' with saucepans for helmets – through farce to pure wit.
Maria (Sabine Devieilhe) is happy mucking in with the regiment. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A moment towards the end of the evening, when two characters have to quickly cover their conversation by launching into improvised song and accompaniment had me laughing till I cried.
Pelly has a real ear for music. You would think that was a given for an opera director, but it is not always so. In the opening bars of Act Two he hears the patient rhythmic plink-plonk of the ballet class accompanist, and sets the bored domestic staff of a fusty, dusty castle to their cleaning duties, with little ballet exercises.
Castles, soldiers, mountains… we are in a 19th-century picture-book, and we can be sure of a happy ending, despite the tyrannical imperiousness of Miranda Richardson in the speaking role of the Duchess of Crakentorp and appropriation of Marie by a marquess sung by Enkelejda Shkoza.
The regiment is taken aback. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sung, and spoken, for there is a much French dialogue to navigate, and the lines are scattered swiftly and with a twinkle. In fact everything sparkles here, nothing more so than the performance of Sabine Devieilhe as Marie, the daughter of the regiment.
Ploughing through the washing and iron for her ‘1,500 Daddies’, peeling potatoes for their 1,500 dinners, Marie is happiest in uniform and horrified when transferred to her ancestral home and bunged into a frilly frock.
The social transition even affects her voice: gone is the sure-footed coloratura of her outdoor life, phrases dancing and trickling as crystal-clear as a mountain stream. Penned into a drawing-room, she slumps out of tune and flaps her arms, a captured bird with clipped wings. She’ll soon be free again, and back comes that astonishing voice – agile, shot through with silver and gold, and rock-solid, except that these rocks are diamonds, dazzling and multi-faceted.
New recruit Tonio (Javier Camarena) shakes up the regiment. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nimble, witty and packed with personality, are there enough roles in the repertoire to do justice to this amazing talent? Someone write something for her, quick! Make it funny, sad, virtuosic and homely, because this singer has got the lot. Catch her while you can.
Pelly’s own set and costumes are as witty as his direction. Giant maps form the slopes and valleys they depict, and the shabby castle has lost its grandeur until it is little more than a skeleton. Here old courtiers shuffle tentatively in their gladrags, penguins and marionettes whose dancing is all in the mind.
Those 18 high Cs apart, Camerana is a likeable Tonio, joining enemy troops to be eligible to marry Marie. But these enemy troops are of the Dad's Army variety. There's nothing to fear when they are on the loose, apart, possibly, from incompetence.
Maria (Sabine Devieilhe) does not take easily to a woman's conventional role. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nothing incompetent in the ranks of musicians in the pit, for sure. Conductor Evelino Pidò has shown his comedy chops at the Royal Opera House before, and he roots out the orchestration's jokes and sentiment, with swooning woodwind here, raspberry-blowing brass.
The Royal Opera Chorus, largely the men this time, have a field day with the booming choruses. The musical family tree is a complex organism: you can hear Verdi over the horizon, Gilbert and Sullivan too.
Italian-born Donizetti wrote La Fille du Régiment towards the end of a period when he set out to make his mark in Paris. The opera was premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1840, quickly became popular and went on to be hit in Italy, in translation. It was so popular in the Opéra-Comique repertory that an incredible 1,000 performances were given between opening night and the early 1900s.
Donizetti was so prolific that a cartoonist of his day depicted him writing a tragedy with one hand and a comedy with the other. La Fille du Régiment falls firmly in the latter category. Enjoy...
La Fille du Régiment is sung in French with English surtitles. Further performances on 11, 13, 15, 18 and 20 July.
|What||La Fille du Régiment, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
08 Jul 19 – 20 Jul 19, six performances, one interval; 12PM start 20 July
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|