Dessay Florez Fille Du Regiment
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From time to time, audiences are presented with what I consider to be a rare event, a “dream” performer: one so convincing in his or her role that they become an ideal, establishing a standard to which all following interpretations will inevitably be compared – for example, Jacqueline du Pré’s interpretation of Elgar’s Cello Concerto has become a timeless benchmark.
In 1972, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland performed La Fille du Régiment with such power and emotion that they became unrivalled in either role. Only in 2007 did the Royal Opera House and Laurent Pelly finally challenge this “dream team”. Bringing together Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez as Marie and Tonio, Pelly’s production created what critics hailed as “an operatic couple made in heaven”; it is not difficult to see why. It is therefore extremely exciting that this co-production between London, New York and Vienna has finally made it to Paris, the city in which the work was originally composed.
Donizetti’s first fully French work, La Fille du Régiment was his attempt at capturing the French spirit of the period, bringing emotions, rather than battle, to the stage. Marie, an orphaned girl adopted by the 21st regiment of the French army, meets a young Tyrolean named Tonio. Despite their amorous feelings, she is unable to follow her desires since she has promised to only marry one of the regiment. However, as Tonio enlists in order to marry Marie, the Marquise of Birkenfeld discovers the existence of Marie, claiming Marie to be her long-lost niece (although in reality she is her daughter) and thus takes her away from the regiment to be properly educated and married. As Marie is about to sign a marriage contract to the Duke of Krakenthorp, the Marquise finally understands Marie’s sacrifice and true love for her regiment and Tonio, and forbids the union between Marie and the Duke, much to the anger of the extravagant Duchess of Krakenthorp.
Anticipation was already high before the curtain had even been lifted, following a sparkling overture, brimming with energy and excitement. The National Orchestra of the Paris Opera were on top form, under the baton of Italian conductor Marco Armiliato. I have heard this orchestra in many varied productions and under various conductors, but never quite so responsive and in-sync; it is true testament to Armiliato’s ability. Furthermore, Chantal Thomas’ clever set design was evident from the start, with piles of household furniture sheltering the Tyroleans from the advancing French army before moving to a battlefield camp, and finally into the main hall of the Birkenfeld castle, all full of intricate and amusing details.
However, whilst praise is deserved on all accounts to the orchestra and choir, the crowning achievement of this production is without a doubt the presence of both Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez (and indeed Alessandro Corbelli as the heart-warming Sergeant Sulpice). The Opéra Bastille is not an easy hall to fill, but almost immediately, Dessay’s voice hit the back rows, all whilst humouring the audience with occasional comic relief. Her first aria “Et comme un soldat j’ai du coeur!” set the tone for the rest of her performance, full of virtuosity yet lightness.
However, the moment every member of the audience was waiting for was, of course, Tonio’s rousing aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!”, as he declares his joy at having enlisted and being closer to Marie. The aria’s nine high Cs are a challenge no tenor should face half-heartedly, and Flórez did so with what can only be described as astounding force, yet with a control that held right through his ninth and final high C and quite literally setting off the audience into a round of applause lasting several minutes; we were not fortunate enough for an infamous encore like his past performances in Milan, but once was already enough to be worth the rapturous applause that ensued.
After performances in London, New York, Vienna and Milan, it is no wonder that the singers and conductor seem so at ease together, seemingly thinking and acting as one, with no discrepancies whatsoever and leaving audiences with an extremely well-rehearsed and comfortable performance, full of laughter, joy and impressive feats of musicality. For those unfortunate enough to have missed this particular production, the DVD of Laurent Pelly’s La Fille du Régiment from 2008 is certainly a worthy compromise for a production that is not to be missed.