This was a weekend for catching up with long running shows. Having been bowled over by Matilda the Musical yesterday afternoon, I caught up today with the third revival of Donizetti's comic opera La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera. It was perhaps a little unfortunate that although Donizetti does his best he just isn't as funny as Tim Minchin.
The opera tells the story of Marie (the daughter of the title), her problematic parentage and marital fate. She has, for those of you who haven't seen it, been raised by a multitude of Daddies (the regiment of the title) but is in fact the daughter of Old Battleaxe Number 1, a.ka. La Marquise de Berkenfeld. For reasons that do not need exploring (and are, so far as I recall, not provided), said Marquise while trying to escape the ongoing Napoleonic Wars runs into the regiment to which her daughter is attached in the Tyrolean Alps. Owing to Daddy-in-Chief Suplice's foolish eagerness to reveal the identity of her daughter, Marie finds herself spirited away to the Marquise's ancestral seat, ready to be married off to the absent son of Old Battleaxe No.2, a.k.a. La Duchess de Crackentorp, just as the passing Tyrolean (Tonio) she really loves (he having saved her, in one of the libretto's silliest devices, from falling off a cliff while she was out picking wild flowers) has enlisted in the regiment in order to allow Marie to fulfil her promise only to marry a member of said illustrious body of men. I trust you are with me so far?
It perhaps does not need to be said that the plot is not really the point, although the dialogue has one or two nice touches, of which I particularly enjoyed the Marquise's frequent refrain that there must be a thatched cottage somewhere in the vicinity, and the Duchess's explanation that her son is absent from his own wedding on account of his Oympic duties (though I was less sure precisely what Olympic event Kiri Te Kanawa's hand gestures were intended to denote). No, the point is not any of this froth but the bel canto singing which accompanies it, and here the production does score a real coup in the presence of Juan Diego Florez (Tonio).
Florez is quite simply outstanding. Indeed he goes a fair way to singing everybody else off stage. He can be ringingly exciting, his top notes punching out into the auditorium, or quietly intimate. He even manages the really difficult feat of not looking too idiotic in lederhosen. The unfortunate side effect of his brilliance though is it does expose the fact that Patricia Ciofi's Marie is not on the same level. She is magically beautiful in the more intimate numbers – her Act Two aria recalling her days with the regiment is the high point. But elsewhere she just doesn't quite have the precision and power that Florez possesses to enable her to punch at the same weight, and she doesn't always sound quite secure. It's a pity as personality wise she gives a really nicely characterised performance.
The supporting parts are well cast. Ewa Podles's voice retains wonderful character, particularly in her lower register, and she bustles about with just the right amount of aristocratic hauteur. Kiri Te Kanawa provides similar haughtiness, delivers the dialogue with great spirit, and the striking thing about her interpolated aria is the amount of voice she retains at the age of 70. Pietro Spagnoli brings off Sulpice with panache.
I was less sure about Yves Abel's conducting. I think this was my first time hearing him in action. There were lovely moments, and some spirited playing, but there were also too many times when to my ear pit and stage were just not quite as precisely together as they ought to be at this level. The orchestra also sounded a bit flabby in places. The Royal Opera Chorus generally sang well. Laurent Pelly's production seems to be holding up nicely, and aided by Chantal Thomas's set designs provides a sequence of effective images – the barricade at the beginning, the mapped mountains, and the remains of marquisal glory. Laura Scozzi's choreography is at its best in dealing with maids and wedding guests in Act Two.
Overall, this is a fun afternoon at the opera, well worth catching if, like me, you've missed its previous outings. But it isn't as funny, or as much fun as Matilda.