When Bachtrack interviewed Sabine Devieilhe in April 2017, she was already a renowned singer in many genres but suggested that she would be approaching bel canto “prudently”. On the basis of last night’s La Fille du régimentDevieilhe’s first leading role at Covent Garden – I think we can safely say that the time for prudence is over.

Sabine Devieilhe (Marie) © ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton
Sabine Devieilhe (Marie)
© ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton

Devieilhe comprehensively nailed the title role of Marie. It’s not just that she hit the high notes in the middle, or that the approaches to them were super-smooth and perfectly weighted to give maximum impact to the note at the end, or that her coloratura passagework was as dazzling as the Duchess’ diamonds: it’s that she did all of this while acting her socks off. Devieilhe has picked up where Natalie Dessay left off in showing how the combination of perfect coloratura and nightmare French teenager can entertain richly. Her rendering of the spoken dialogue, her flounces, her mood swings and angry muttering to herself were hilarious. In Act 2, when she is singing her ghastly Italian singing exercise but continually breaking into the regimental marching song, the tricky switch between the two (ear-splittingly out of tune in one, beautifully rumbustiousness in the other) was handled with aplomb. In the lyrical numbers like “Par le rang et l’opulence”, she turned on full vocal beauty.

Javier Camarena (Tonio) © ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton
Javier Camarena (Tonio)
© ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton

If Devieilhe is a relative newcomer to bel canto, Javier Camarena is not: he’s been making Tonio his signature role in houses across the world. The high Cs of “Ah, mes amis” have become his calling card: he hits them with ease at higher power levels than anyone. It’s almost become a habit for him to encore the aria, which he did last night to the great delight of the crowd. But if you’re interested in singing technique, what’s most impressive of all is listening to him come off the high note: as he swoops down into the chest voice, you simply can’t hear the join. Camarena clearly adores the role: for the whole evening, his boyish, cheeky face beamed with a grin that risked melting the Tyrolean glaciers.

Sabine Devieilhe (Marie), Javier Camarena (Tonio), Pietro Spagnoli (Sulpice) © ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton
Sabine Devieilhe (Marie), Javier Camarena (Tonio), Pietro Spagnoli (Sulpice)
© ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton

Pietro Spagnoli, in delightful form as the good-natured Sergeant Sulpice, completed a glorious comic trio. The audience lapped it up: rarely have I heard an opera performance so often interrupted by guffaws of audience laughter or applause at the end of each number. Although this is the fourth revival of Laurent Pelly’s production, I’m guessing that several people were seeing it for the first time, to judge by the number who were in stitches at the many visual gags and at the jokes in the surtitles.

Pelly’s staging has stood the test of time. It still amuses to see soldiers tramping round over a series of maps of Europe moulded into hills, with strings of washing appearing at improbable intervals. The choreography doesn’t feel tired and the few big coups de théâtre still work (I won’t spoil them). The details are fun, too: Sulpice having to rescue Marie from burning the clothes she’s ironing, Tonio being willing to peel potatoes but utterly inept at it, Marie’s treasured gifts from the regiment wrapped in a blanket under the floorboards of the Berkenfield château.

Royal Opera Chorus © ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton
Royal Opera Chorus
© ROH 2019 | Tristram Kenton

The Royal Opera Chorus was on decent form, but the orchestra disappointed: after a wobbly start, Evelino Pidò conjured playing that was competent and contained some nice woodwind solos but which rarely rose above the workaday. There’s more lift and brio in this music than we heard for most of the evening.

The greatest comedy contains moments of darkness. La Fille du régiment doesn’t have many of those and this production certainly doesn’t focus on them: Act 1 can contain stronger fears of rape and pillage as the villagers anxiously await the invading army, while the prospect of forced marriage into the Crackentorp dynasty can be played considerably more darkly than was done here. If you like some grit in your comedic oyster, this isn’t the production for you. But if you prefer your romcom light and frothy (and superbly sung), last night was hard to beat. As cast, orchestra and chorus launched into the closing “Salut à la France”, to the visual accompaniment of a giant French cockerel, no-one in the house can have escaped the infectious enthusiasm.

****1