Great moments in opera: La Fille du Régiment

March 24, 2011

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment is one of those diverting comedies that the Italian bel canto did so well. (Don’t let the fact that it is sung in French confuse you; this is Italian all the way down.) It is full of beautiful melodies and virtuoso showpieces, requiring two top-shelf talents in the lead roles.

The story, very briefly, is as follows. A young woman, Marie, abandoned as an infant and discovered by a military regiment, has been brought up in their care as the “daughter of the regiment”. She cooks and cleans for her “fathers”, and sings their regimental song with great virtuosity, to their paternal delight. It is intended that she should eventually marry one of the members of the regiment, though exactly who shall be her husband has not been decided. Enter Tonio, a handsome young man who falls in love with her, and, learning of the marriage arrangement, joins the regiment in order to qualify for her hand. It’s a love story, in other words. There is a sub-plot that brings a surprise at the end, but for me the heart of the opera is the romance.

All of the clips below are from a recent production starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. That is a dream team the likes of which does not come around very often. I am sometimes not enthusiastic about Dessay, but in this role she is terrific. Flórez, for his part, — well, more about him in a few moments.

Here is Marie singing the regimental song, an aria called Chacun le sait, chacun le dit. I have seen a few different productions, and in this scene the soprano is apparently encouraged to improvise quite extensively. Dessay’s is the best that I have seen; she is very funny and has plenty of spunk. English subtitles included.

At the end of Act I comes a sad song, sung again by Marie, lamenting the fact that she must leave both her beloved regiment and her beloved Tonio — for reasons related to the sub-plot. The aria, called Il faut partir, is incredibly lovely, and I can tell you that when I was watching this opera on DVD at home I began to applaud, there, in the middle of the kitchen, when the aria was finished. It’s a fine, fine performance. (A higher quality version, though without subtitles, is here.)

Now for Juan Diego Flórez. There is a very famous aria called Ah, mes amis that puts the fear of God into any tenor who sings this role. During the course of the aria he is required to sing not one, and not two, but nine high Cs. Pavarotti did it, with room to spare, in a famous Metropolitan Opera performance opposite Joan Sutherland, and it made him a star. And now Juan Diego Flórez is doing it too. Here he is, making it seem easy:

Before I sat down to watch La Fille du Regiment this week, I didn’t know much about it apart from a few famous arias. I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s a good-natured, very amusing story with a sweet romance at its center, and the music cheers the heart. I could imagine taking my teenaged daughter — not now, you understand, but later, when I have one — to see it at the opera house. It is made to please.

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