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Oh What a Lovely War!

New York
Metropolitan Opera
04/21/2008 -  and April 29, May 2, 5, 8, 12, 16
Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment
Natalie Dessay (Marie), Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio), Felicity Palmer (Marquise of Berkenfeld), Donald Maxwell (Hortensius), Alessandro Corbelli (Sulpice), Marian Seldes (Duchess of Krakenthorp), Roger Andrews (Corporal), David Frye (Townsman), Jack Wetherall (Notary)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Laurent Pelly (Production & Costume Designer), Chantal Thomas (Set Designer), Joël Adam (Lighting Designer), Laura Scozzi (Choreographer), Agathe Mélinand (Associate Director & Dialogue)

When the American President recently described our Afghanistan foray as “a wonderful adventure for young people”, he was not being silly. Bush was inherently confessing a devotion to opera buffa, notable Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.The “dashing” 21st Regiment have the most delightful time in this new Metropolitan Opera production. Discipline is nil, drinking is incessant, they roll over each other like Keystone Kops, and one expects them any minute to break into “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One”.

But all of that goes with the production here. It is, granted, a bit schizophrenic, since Donizetti’s music has as much pathos as comedy, as much bel canto very-high-jinx as farcical low comedy. So just when one is laughing as Ms. Dessay drags out some laundry on a stage-long clothesline, she sings the tragic “Il faut partir, adieu”. As one hears the Verdian “Par le rang et par l’opulence…”, Ms. Dessay has just finished a comic aria, complete with military salutes.

Even the very first scene of Tyrolean peasants dreading a French invasion resembles Gorky’s The Lower Depths more than Italian comedy. Their parade and silly dancing later with pots on head and mops as guns was funny enough, but a jarring change from their dreary postures and the beautiful prayer by the women’s chorus.

But Donizetti was no mere tune-spinner. And while La Fille du Régiment is an uncomplicated happy-ending silly little piece, it has some rich characters. The turncoat Tonio, the mock-Marquise who becomes sympathetic at the end, and of course Marie, as played by Ms. Dessay.

More about her later. This was a cheerful production, updated to the First World War. The outlines of the Tyrolean Alps, and the framework in the second act were just abstract enough to make the acting and singing quite enchanting. The floating posters were unneeded and irritable, but didn’t stop the flow of singing and acting.

And what singing, what acting, especially from Natalie Dessay in the eponymous role. Ms. Dessay wore her orange uni-braided wig with aplomb. She looked the tough-talking tomboy at times, the cute little orphan at time. Her stage business was just subtle enough. An example, as she is ironing the shirts of the Regiment and singing, she synchronizes a particularly difficult set of phrases with getting a tough stain out of a shirt!

The Dessay soprano could only be described as sublime. Yes, the high D’s were unforced, the phrasing in "Et comme un soldat" built into the duet effortlessly, the Act II duet with Tonio, where the duo were on opposite sides of the stage, was perfectly balanced. But it is her voice itself which is clear, her enunciation precise. As singer, dancer, actress, she has a stage presence who never could go over the top; she was splendid.

The great Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez looks striking, doesn’t do much in acting (except trip over some barrels), but one of course waits for his "Pour une âme" with the nine high C’s. (Okay, so Donizetti only put in eight!). He reached them in style, and—oh shame!!!—took the calls of “Encore!” seriously, repeating it—making 18 high C’s altogether.

Well, good for him!! If the Met is to be turned into early 19th Century San Carlo in Naples, let it be!!

Felicity Palmer as the Marquise didn’t really get into the part until the second act, but Alessandro Corbelli as Sgt. Sulpice was awfully funny. Straight out of British comedy was Donald Maxwell as the Marquise’s butler, Hortensio, both cynical and long-suffering.

The great actress Marian Seldes appeared in the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp, but her talents were wasted. She looked dour, could barely be heard in the invented dialogue, and simply wasn’t amusing. Her antediluvian relatives entered like the zombies of a George Romero movie, and were wonderful.

The direction sometimes reeks of vaudeville, sometimes burlesque, but most often the machinery of good opera buffa. And with Ms. Dessay in a role which she evidently loves, La Fille du Régiment is an enchanting experience.

Harry Rolnick



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