Natalie Dessay has been making a real signature role out of Marie, Donizetti's foundling "Daughter of the Regiment" who turns out to be of noble birth (well, partly, wherein lies the tale). We went to Covent Garden last night specially to see her, and she didn't disappoint: her performance was quite out of the ordinary.

La Fille du Régiment - © BC20100514050 - Natalie Dessay as Marie, Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice Pingot -© The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper, May 2010
La Fille du Régiment -
© BC20100514050 - Natalie Dessay as Marie, Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice Pingot -© The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper, May 2010

In the spoken parts, Dessay plays the sulky French teenager to perfection - so much so that you begin to wonder quite what *she* was like as a teenager. She interleaves this with delivering the smoothest, most delicious bel canto including enough tricks and perfectly pitched high notes to satisfy the most demanding of listeners, all while being (literally) thrown around the stage by various other cast members.

The rest of the cast couldn't quite match such a star turn, but they came closer than you might have expected. Alessandro Corbelli was in splendid form as Sergeant Sulpice, Ann Murray wonderful as the Marquise who turns out to be Marie's mother, and Dawn French delivering a suitably gusto-filled pantomime performance as the monstrous English aristocrat, with hideously mangled Franglais and a few notable alterations to the 19th century dialogue (I don't suppose the original libretto refers to skimping on the chocolate fountains at the wedding feast, but the line brought the house down). Colin Lee's Tonio seemed to start a little uncertainly and without much chemistry: perhaps a little overawed by Dessay and the shadow of Juan Diego Flórez, who sang the role in earlier (and impossibly booked out) performances. However, he improved greatly as the opera progressed, and by the time he reached the showpiece Pour me rapprocher de Marie in Act II, his performance was a match even for Dessay's.

There's masses of fun in the production: the story is so silly that the whole thing is unashamedly played for laughs, and the audience were suitably captured. All this vocal and production quality was just as well, because the orchestra, to put it kindly, had an off night. The overture was awful: brass notes wobbling and dying, cymbal crashes floppy and indistinct, orchestral tutti scattered. I'm not sure quite what happened to conductor Bruno Campanella, but I can only hope that this was a one-off. It seemed to rub off on the chorus: the production has some fun sets and some great choreography, but it was all executed a bit sloppily: military precision was the last word you could use to describe the chorus of soldiers moving around the stage.

The proof of the pudding, however, lay in the reaction of the audience as they left the opera house. I heard several people clearly being taken to their first opera by more knowledgeable friends, who were unanimous in leaving on a real high having laughed riotously throughout the evening and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Donizetti's music may not be the most memorable, but it's pleasant enough: combined with some inventive production and a great libretto, La Fille du Régiment makes for a great night out and a perfect introduction for novice operagoers. And if I get any chances in future to see Dessay in just about anything, I'm going for it.