A good time was had by all in the Régiment

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 5/12/2008
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

If entertainment is what you’re after, you would have found it in abundance in this staging of La Fille du Régiment. Although comedia del’arte is not usually a part of the operatic tradition, it is superimposed on this production, making sure that one’s concentration will not lag, that something will be happening in rapid fire succession to catch the attention of even the most restive mind. Virtually all of the stage foolery was clever indeed, but it brought to mind a scene in this season’s Zauberflöte production, where several twenty-foot dancing bears frolicked and floated about the stage, dwarfing Tamino and drawing focus away from his fine singing of “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton. One was not certain that the sizeable ovation that followed was for the singer or the puppets.  Laurent Pelly’s penchant for gags at the rate of thirty second television frames was close to relentless: The chorus charmingly prances and dances; an endless line of laundry is pulled across stage; Natalie Dessay, flat iron in hand outlines with flourishes of the arm the highs and the lows of her impressive coloratura; the agile heroine jumps on her lover like a monkey changing trees, wrapping her arms and legs around his standing form to plant the first kiss on his lips; she is tossed about above the heads of her soldier/fathers; and so on through the evening. Although Pavarotti and Sutherland could not have begun to match the capers on stage, it was clear that the present, winsome, Marie and Tonio could not create the evening’s success on their singing alone.  Natalie Dessay’s handsome and technically secure voice showed signs of fatigue in this final performance, and she sang a great deal on her capital, as the saying goes. She is a wonderful comedienne and one must add, acrobat, as well.

Barry Banks, replacing the celebrated Juan Diego Florez , as the evening’s Tonio, has a solid and sonorous high C – in fact a series of them, brilliantly displayed in his aria. His timbre, however, is on the wrong side of bright, and although his musicianship, that is, pitch, phrasing, and rhythm, is admirable, the sound is uncomfortably close to voices that are cast in works by Richard Rogers, Leonard Bernstein, or Andrew Lloyd Weber. One sees more and more, season after season, in opera houses and concert halls around the world, this gradual intrusion of the world of pop music into our great operatic tradition.

Great style and comic flair was displayed on the part of Felicity Palmer, the Marquise of Berkenfield, whose genuinely aristocratic carriage made her foolish gestures and poses all the more hilarious. Especially amusing was the voice lesson in which she fired a volley of musical directions at her daughter while playing scales and arpeggios with a vengeance, upon a slightly out of tune piano – a wonderful touch. It was odd to see this role played against Marian Seldes, who camped it up as the Duchess of Krakenthorp á la New York’s famous Grand Scena troupe. Although she was very, very funny, Seldes’ over the top style clashed with the otherwise homogeneous tone of the cast.

Conductor Marco Armiliato created a sparkling ensemble between the stage and orchestra pit, generating the beautiful melodic material with buoyancy and grace.

There are many wonderful things to be said about this presentation of Fille de Régiment: It was hilarious. It was beautiful to behold. It was well choreographed. It was acrobatic and muscular. It was highly polished. It was good theater. Sometimes the fact that it was good opera as well seemed to have been a purely ancillary matter.