Laurent Pelly’s crowd-pleasing production of La Fille du régiment has returned to Covent Garden, although no amount of bustling stage business – and there are some spirited performances on display – can disguise the work’s flaws. The plethora of funny walks and witty choreography raise a chuckle rather than a belly laugh and what starts out as Gallic charm, often descends into knockabout pantomime. However, the production does boast the return of Juan Diego Flórez and Patrizia Ciofi to their roles, along with splendid support from the redoubtable Ewa Podleś and a cameo from an operatic legend.

Patrizia Ciofi (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) © Catherine Ashmore
Patrizia Ciofi (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio)
© Catherine Ashmore

The critic who really sank his teeth into the opera was Hector Berlioz, although he acknowledged the work’s vivacity. Plainly, he was irked by yet another Donizetti opera premièring in Paris: “Monsieur Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion”. Yet it clocked up over 500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in a little over 30 years and was regularly performed there on Bastille Day.

Donizetti’s first attempt at the opéra comqiue genre (which features spoken dialogue) concerns Marie, a vivandière, raised by an entire French regiment as their own after she was found abandoned on the battlefield as an infant. She falls for Tonio, a young Tyrolean, but discovers that she is the niece of the haughty Marquise de Berkenfeld, who forces Marie to abandon her regiment for a proper education and an advantageous marriage contract. The denouement – the Marquise is revealed to be Marie’s mother – is entirely predictable, as is her capitulation into allowing her newfound daughter to marry for love. It’s a plot flimsier than tissue paper.

Ewa Podles (La Marquise de Berkenfeld) and Kiri te Kanawa (La Duchesse du Krakentorp © Catherine Ashmore
Ewa Podles (La Marquise de Berkenfeld) and Kiri te Kanawa (La Duchesse du Krakentorp
© Catherine Ashmore

Pelly’s production, revived here by Christian Räth, is full of comic energy. Long johns are winched along washing lines. Soldiers scramble gamely across Chantal Thomas’ set comprised of giant folded maps forming the Alpine scenery. In Act II, the Berkenfeld’s castle is represented by a parquet floor jutting across the cartography, framed by windows and doors. Many of Pelly’s cast are caricatures, from Donald Maxwell’s snooty major-domo, Hortensius, to Pietro Spagnoli’s tubby sergeant, Sulpice. None is drawn more outrageously than Ewa Podleś’ Marquise de Berkenfeld, waddling across the stage in a display of glorious overacting. The caricature extended to her singing; there is now a very noticeable break in her registers, but when Podleś’ contralto profundo resonates so magnificently, it’s a delight. The Marquise’s comic counterfoil is the Duchesse de Krakentorp, a spoken role usually played by a celebrity. Dame Kiri te Kanawa may not be the most natural comedian, but she delivered her lines as an amusing cocktail of French and broad Kiwi and, to the audience’s delight, threw in an aria from Puccini’s Edgar (“O fior del giorno”) for good measure. The extra dialogue makes Act II feel overly padded.

La Fille stands or falls by its leading lady and her Tyrolean lover. Patrizia Ciofi reprised the role of Marie, which she sang here just two years ago. She was the perfect tom-boy, attacking the part with verve and comic flair, especially when Marie has to act the lady, a mask which frequently slips. Vocally, she was less assured. There’s unquestioned agility at the top of her range, but she suffered a few lapses of intonation in “Par le rang et par l’opulence” and her lower register now sounds hollow and under-nourished.

La Fille du régiment © Catherine Ashmore
La Fille du régiment
© Catherine Ashmore

Juan Diego Flórez’s stylishly sung Tonio was rapturously received, claiming the vocal honours. “Ah! mes amis” is the opera’s showstopper and its nine high Cs were fired out with a sharpshooter’s precision. Rarely have I heard such an eruption from the Covent Garden audience and I suggest we could only have been a gnat’s whisker away from a deserved encore. Flórez’s steely tenor leggiero makes it perfect for the bel canto fireworks of Rossini and Donizetti, yet later he also demonstrated his ability to spin a gentle legato. “Pour me rapprocher de Marie”, where Tonio turns to the Marquise and declares his love for her daughter, was tenderly delivered. He acts the role sweetly, from gauche boy clad in Lederhosen to dashing soldier. Flórez, Ciofi and Spagnoli combined well in the jaunty Act II trio.

Yves Abel didn’t always draw maximum fizz from the orchestra, but the overture benefited from some lovely yodelling woodwind solos. The men of the Royal Opera Chorus had a ball as Marie’s “fathers”, Laura Scozzi’s choreography revelling in collective silliness.

La Fille du régiment resembles one of those cappuccinos frequently served up by too many coffee chains: all froth and little substance. If the infectious choruses and ensembles constitute the froth, then Tonio’s aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!”, with its nine high Cs, is the luxury cocoa dusting. Beneath the surface, however, the work is both musically and dramatically weak. For frothy entertainment, Pelly’s Fille is harmless fun, even if it descends into pantomime cliché. Flórez’s Tonio ensures it remains a hot ticket and Ciofi’s Marie is a bundle of energy.