After opening with L’elisir d’amore, the Donizetti Opera Festival continued its journey among the philological versions of the Master's famous operas, presenting La Fille du régiment, written for the Opéra Comique in 1840, in a new critical edition by Claudio Toscani. Director Luis Ernesto Doñas, in a co-production with Teatro Lírico Nacional de Cuba, transports the opera to a Cuban revolutionary setting. The 21st regiment belongs to the revolutionary army, Tonio is a peasant, and the Marquise de Berkenfield is part of the Cuban higher class, hoping for a US intervention to restore the ancien régime. In order to make sense of all the references to France in the libretto, the name of the 21st regiment is “La France” (the regiments of Castro’s army did have names, after all). 

Sara Blanch (Marie)
© Gianfranco Rota

Angelo Sala's sets reference the work of painter Raúl Martínez. The “warriors” of the 21st regiment are artists, armed with brushes, busy painting large images on the background; this tempered the many glorifications of war and fighting, rendering them more palatable to our modern world view. The costumes, by Maykel Martínez, were very colourful for the revolutionaries – splashes of primary colours inspired by Martínez –  while the aristocracy live in a black and white world, their clothes and the staging in the second act referring to the stars and stripes (albeit with no colours) to signify their allegiance to the USA.

La Fille du régiment
© Gianfranco Rota

The transposition of the opera was daring, not least because it involved the rewriting of most of the spoken dialogue, but for me it worked. The concept is that any war is comparable to any other, and so are class differences, gender stereotypes and moral dilemmas. The Cuban revolutionary setting also helps explain the change of heart of the Marquise at the end: she probably realises the winds are changing and this convinces her to swap her rigid, classist ideas for more egalitarian ones, allowing her daughter to marry a peasant/soldier. I also enjoyed Ernesto López Maturell playing bongos on stage as the drummer accompanying the army.

John Osborn (Tonio) and chorus
© Gianfranco Rota

Michele Spotti conducted the Orchestra Donizetti Opera with great enthusiasm, producing quite a bit of volume. The orchestration of La Fille, albeit sophisticated and non-trivial, does have marching band quality at times, and Spotti did not shy away from these, but always with elegance. There were some instances where the pit overpowered the stage; not so much the soloists, all of whom had great projection, but the chorus (the accomplished and precise Coro dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala) at times seemed to drown a bit in the orchestra’s sound. Perhaps the young age of the singers could be a factor here.

John Osborn (Tonio), Sara Blanch (Marie) and Paolo Bordogna (Sulpice)
© Gianfranco Rota

The singing cast was nothing short than excellent. Sara Blanch sang Marie with a brilliant, silvery soprano, capable of extremely easy, unfaltering high and super-high notes, full of harmonics. Her interpretation was funny, sweet, and engaging; in the singing lesson she had the courage to sing out of tune and with fixed, horrible high notes resembling a train whistle. It was hilarious. Her “Il faut partir” was tender and moving. Tonio, her lover, was John Osborn. One may think that his high and light tenor would be more suited to opera seria, given its melancholy, larmoyant quality, and its elegance. But his “Ah mes amis!” was overwhelmingly brilliant. He interpolated a tenth high C in the cantabile just before the nine high Cs section, and he embellished the first round with a sort of mordente, touching a high D. The theatre exploded and Osborn had to give an encore. Despite the excitement in the first act, he gave his best in the second act romance “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” where his legato and phrasing were perfect, supported by an extraordinary breath control. This aria was considerably different, in the new critical edition, from what we are used to hearing, including interventions by Marie and Sulpice (cut by tradition), and a very difficult cadenza written by Donizetti himself, which Osborn performed admirably, hitting a high E flat with confidence and squillo.

Adriana Bignagni Lesca (Marquise de Birkenfeld) and Paolo Bordogna (Sulpice)
© Gianfranco Rota

Paolo Bordogna was a very youthful Sulpice, his warm baritone precise and elegant, his acting funny as always. Adriana Bignagni Lesca was a much appreciated surprise; she sang La Marquise de Berkenfield with a smooth bronzed mezzo tending to contralto, with a beautiful, warm low register, powerful yet contained (she would be an excellent Ulrica, methinks). She had a ball with the funny character, singing El arreglito by Sebastián Yradier – the habanera “borrowed” by Bizet to became Carmen’s – or barking with a cavernous bass at her butler, while interpolating smiles and high-pitched giggles for a Duchess. Born to be on stage.