To the uninitiated, a word of caution. Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment can be a testing evening for any audience. It’s as much operetta as opera, with frothy music that’s sometimes too facile, a plot thin on plausibility and spoken dialogue that can leave eyes rolling in its triteness. That leaves Csaba Polgár little choice but to try and make the best of the work’s limitations in his new production for the Hungarian State Opera.

Zita Szemere (Marie), András Palerdi (Sulpice) and Gergely Boncsér (Tonio)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

An orphan girl, found lying near a battlefield who grows up as the adopted daughter of a French army regiment, falls in love with a peasant boy from the enemy’s side. Their plans to marry are thwarted, first by her “fathers”, the members of the regiment, and then by the Marquise de Berkenfield who takes her in after revelations that she is a long-lost family member. She’s about to marry the nephew of the Duchesse de Crakentorp, against her will, when the Marquise relents and agrees to let her wed her peasant suitor.

The opera’s loose backdrop is the French occupation of the Tyrol in the early 19th century, and its droll and kindly soldiers, rousing music adapted in part from French military marches and general patriotic tone made it popular among the Parisian audience long past its 1840 premiere. Today, however, the plot is not only improbable but so artlessly simple that even the best direction doesn’t have much to work with. That leaves staging, dramaturgy and orchestral and vocal performance as benchmarks to judge the work by. 

Zita Szemere (Marie) and chorus
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Polgár's production merits a mixed report card. There is little sparkle in Lili Izsák's sets. Act 1 takes place in a room loosely recognisable as a Tyrolean inn with the requisite mountain goat horns on a wall and dark wooden rafters underneath the ceiling. Act 2 puts the principals in a faux marble hall representing the Marquise’s quarters. Both are okay as far as the storyline goes, but are not very exciting in an opera crying out for razzle-dazzle to offset the staidness of both plot and action.

The acting and vocal skills of most of the principals merit higher marks. Zita Szemere was a wonderfully ebullient Marie with a lyric coloratura that seems created for the role of the regiment’s mascot and queen of its canteen. She demonstrated perfect dramatic balance in an opera filled with slapstick pitfalls and was rewarded with laughter instead of groans from the audience. Much of the credit for the fun factor, however, goes to András Péter Kovács, the humorist who revised La Fille’s spoken text and rendered them into Hungarian. His prose is witty if occasionally borderline scatological, giving not only Szemere but some of the other principals wonderful bon mots that made for some of this production’s best moments. But only if you spoke Hungarian, unfortunately. Of all the singers, it’s András Palerdi who made the most of the lines thrown his way by Kovács as the gruff-mannered but tender-hearted regimental sergeant closest to Marie, and his buffo basso vocals rounded out his role. But Mária Farkasréti gave him a run for the comic money as the ambiguously suggestive Marquise de Berkenfield. 

András Palerdi (Sulpice), Zita Szemere (Marie) and Mária Farkasréti (Marquise de Berkenfield)
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera

Bence Pataki was well cast as Hortensius, the Marquise’s butler, as were Gergely Irlanda, Gergely Biri, Tünde Szalontay and Zsófia Alberti in supporting roles. As Tonio, Marie’s peasant beau, Gergely Boncsér’s voice was overpowered at times by the orchestra and got lost in the deeper registers. He managed the requisite high C’s in “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” But his strength lay more in Act 2’s nuanced and delicately phrased passages.

Heeding Donizetti’s emphasis of voice over orchestra, conductor Fabrizio Mario Carminati kept his musicians restrained for the most part but let them shine where called for, notably in the gorgeous solo cello accompaniment to Marie’s “C'en est donc fait”. More than perhaps any other of La Fille’s musical moments, this lovely recitative gives meaning to Donizetti’s “Love cannot express the idea of music, while music may give an idea of love.”