Gaetano Donizetti wrote his first Parisian opera for the Opéra Comique. In French, with spoken dialogue, La Fille du régiment is a comedy with strong military overtones and a decidedly Italian countenance. It was not an overwhelming success at the premiere, but established itself in the repertoire thanks to its brilliant, bubbling music, plus the tenor aria with the uber-famous 9 high Cs, a pièce de resistance for the most famous singers, from Luciano Pavarotti to Alfredo Kraus to Juan Diego Flórez.

John Osborn (Tonio) and Maria Grazia Schiavo (Marie)
© Michele Crosera

The Teatro La Fenice closes its 2021–22 season with a new production by directorial double act André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, who move the action from the Napoleonic Wars to World War 2. Before the beginning of the opera, and during the overture, we see in a video an aged Marie in a retirement home, surrounded by trinkets reminding her of her youth: a cuckoo clock (her beloved Tonio was from Tyrol), a Madonna statue, a music box, Tonio’s military medals. She receives a visit from her grandchildren and tells them her story, which takes place on a stage representing the coffee table with all her knick-knacks enlarged to form the sets. Marie’s memories shape the story; we see everything through the eyes of her recollections.

The concept is charming. The staging is colourful and enchanting and it frames the story with a sort of magical, fairy-tale feeling, fairly suited to the silly plot. The direction of the singers was less astute; they were pretty much left to their own devices, while some of the ideas seem unoriginal. In the second act, the guests arrive at the Marquise’s party, on the notes of a minuet, as a bunch of decrepit old people stumbling on stage with the help of canes and walkers, an image closely resembling the one in Laurent Pelly’s famous production.

The repositioning of the action in the 20th century doesn’t serve any purpose; it just provides the absurdity of an “invading” French army in Western Austria in the WW2 which historians must have overlooked.

La Fille du régiment
© Michele Crosera

Conductor Stefano Ranzani treated us to an excellent overture, with the perfect amount of nerve and brilliance. The orchestration of Fille, full of rumbling drums and military brass, can lead less experienced conductors into marching-band territory, but Ranzani managed to lead the Fenice orchestra in a balanced, lively performance, only occasionally showing a bit too much enthusiasm, but always true to the Donizettian style. The chorus sang with competence and flair, unfortunately with a tendency to lag behind in some of the faster moments.

Marie, the little girl adopted by a French regiment, was Maria Grazia Schiavo, whose brilliant soprano successfully enlivened the spunky teenager. She showed easy high notes and an amazing breathing technique. Her high notes (at times) were a bit too forward and sounded uncovered, but her performance was overall very enjoyable. Her best moment was probably the slow, emotional aria “Il faut partir”, where she managed to convey both sadness and youthful energy. John Osborn, a veteran of the role, triumphed as Tonio, the Tyrolean boy who enlists in the invader’s army to be close to his beloved. His luminous, secure tenor sailed through “Ah, mes amis!” with confidence, his high C’s simply spectacular. Osborn’s voice has a melancholy quality, extremely suited to the second act aria “Pour me rapprocher de Marie”, which he sung with elegance and pathos, and was perhaps the highlight of the evening. He does tend to be a bit wooden on stage, but he was clearly having fun and gave a joyous interpretation.

La Fille du régiment
© Michele Crosera

Armando Noguera sang Sulpice, the regiment’s sergeant, Marie’s father figure, with an elegant baritone; his solid technique and acting abilities helped him give a convincing interpretation of the old soldier. Marie’s “aunt”, who turns out to be her mother, the Marquise de Berkenfield, was Natasha Petrinsky, who showed a very good command of her lower register, powerful and well supported. Her higher register was a little more wobbly, but just enough to make a convincing middle-aged lady. She showed remarkable acting skills: her emotional breakdown in the second act made her almost a sympathetic character (almost).

In this opera there is a spoken role, La Duchesse de Crakentorp, which is usually sung by old glories (see Montserrat Caballe’s hilarious interpretation in Vienna in 2007). La Fenice enrolled a beloved Italian actress, TV personality, and cabaret artist, Marisa Laurito, who enlivened the performance with her comedic verve and an Italian cabaret song from the 50s, which had nothing to do with Donizetti, but was sung with competence and spirit.

A resounding success for all.

***11