It was all there. That sense of enjoyment, those ingenuous giggles, uninhibited words of approval on leaving the hall. A grey cloud of at best tedium and at worst outrage that had marred a not insignificant number of the recent productions at the Teatro Real had finally been lifted. The sense of relief and thrill was manifest in an audience that had been craving quality entertainment.

Pietro Spagnoli (Sulpice) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Pietro Spagnoli (Sulpice) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House and the Wiener Staatsoper, this version of Gaetano Donizetti’s enchanting if irregular opéra comique La Fille du régiment had everything going for it. Hats off to Laurent Pelly for a stage production that works superbly and remains coherent at a large scale and cheeky in its details. The curtain before the audience is itself a case in point, representing the back of an old, unfolded map of Tyrol. As it rises, we discover the stage too is a map. Literally, a partially unfolded map on which all characters exist. So simple, yet so effective, and astonishingly compatible with the otherwise mundane activities that occur over it, some of which – such as potato peeling or meticulous ironing – are far from getting a metaphoric treatment. Cartography and life at a real scale clearly blend well.

That same effectiveness applies to the rancid, tilted-to-one-side palace of the second act, an alleged luxurious location that in fact turns out to be a dusty space desperately lacking life. Here too we are presented with a combination of the literal – dark, stifling wooden doors and walls – and the symbolic – the picture frames on the wall border nothing.

Both spaces also adequately allow for the integration of a whole regiment that actually looks like one, in numbers as well as in appearance. The full force of this troop is attractively choreographed, with the collective father figure coming across nicely and solid vocal work from the entire male chorus, ranging from the plainer military airs to the moving echoes of the daughter’s suffering.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

After the much regretted cancellation of Natalie Dessay, the role of Marie fell in the hands of Aleksandra Kurzak. She was the perfect example of how to capitalise on strengths and intelligently work around weaknesses. We saw the tomboy, the child undergoing growing pains, the overwhelmed young woman in love. Her character was the force of nature it needs to be, extending from the heartrending way in which she sings farewell to her unusual family in her “Il faut partir!” as she refuses to let go of the washing line, to the perfectly out of tune singing lesson – and the full-on tantrum that follows. Truth to be told, her voice might not have the most velvety quality to it, and it did appear to display a tendency to narrow as it stretched up to the higher register, but she defended every phrase and more than made up for that not-possible-to-circumvent physical imperfection. Hers was a flesh and bone Marie, with all the mandatory nuances, and a delight to have on stage.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie) and Javier Camarena (Tonio) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Aleksandra Kurzak (Marie) and Javier Camarena (Tonio)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Interestingly, pretty much the opposite could be said of Javier Camarena: the higher the notes he sang, the more at ease he seemed to be. The celebrated aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!”, portrayed as the epic moment when an euphoric Tonio sings nine high Cs, was by and large the most straightforward moment for him. While the low and central register of Camarena’s voice is unquestionably well groomed, there is a threshold as he goes up – around G – when it is as if a gigantic resonator opens up, and there goes his voice, pure, projected and cutting through the house like a knife, clearly happy to sit up there. There is no denying Camarena possesses a rather phenomenal instrument, and he uses very astutely. It did prove trickier for him to live up to his partner dramatically, but they were both able to find common ground and supported each other throughout the evening, making a highly watchable couple – and a joy to listen to.

As with the German Sinsgpiel, La Fille du regiment also includes substantial spoken sections, which Agathe Mélinand has wisely trimmed, leaving them at a length that doesn’t become too burdensome yet contains all the essential developments the audience needs to know about. Overall, these spoken episodes worked remarkably well, though some of the performers could have done with better French coaching. The larger than life presence that remains Ewa Podleś is one such verbose character, the Marquise of Berkenfield, which she hilariously brought to life. Pietro Spagnoli didn’t fail to entertain either, his Sergeant Sulpice beautifully projecting his spoken words at least as much as his sung ones.

With Bruno Campanella craftily keeping the ensemble together, including a loyal and balanced orchestra, this was, as Hector Berlioz noted – albeit with a way less enthusiastic connotation – a veritable invasion. It is hard to imagine anyone leaving the theatre in low spirits.