La Fille du Regiment, Royal Opera

Having conquered operatic stages in Europe and
the US during the past five years, Laurent Pelly’s Tyrolean
troopers/troupers have tramped back to London, with a sway and a swagger; the
company’s stalwarts demonstrate their stamina while some of the leaders
take a breather and make way for new recruits.

In particular, Natalie Dessay has resigned from the brigade. In 2010, on the
occasion of the first ROH revival, I remarked that the role “is fast
becoming a signature role — and indeed it is hard to imagine this
production without Dessay”. However, Patrizia Ciofi more than proved me
wrong: lacking Dessay’s manic agitation — a gamine hyperactivity
that was often achieved at the expense of vocal finesse — Ciofi’s
Marie is an altogether more rounded, and composed, character: an energetic, at
times unreasonable adolescent, yes, but also a burgeoning young woman with
hopes and dreams with which we can identify. Ciofi’s diction at times
lacks lucidity; and her wide vibrato — especially at the top where it
frequently forces the pitch upwards — is unfortunate in more sustained,
ensemble passages.

La_Fille_ROH_2012_03.gifAnn Widdecombe as La Duchesse De Crackentorp and Donald Maxwell as Hortensius

But, Ciofi has the high tessitura and breathtaking
coloratura easily under her belt — or should I say braces — and has
a rich, creamy tone. Hers is a Marie who makes us laugh and cry.
Whether wobbling determinedly across the stage, buried beneath laundry
mountains, or leaping aloft a potato bucket to entertain the troops, or being
violently hoisted upside down or horizontal as she is ‘abducted’ by
her newly found aunt, Ciofi retained her equanimity. Overall, she may lack some
of Dessay’s hard-hitting punch but hers is a more genuine bel

Colin Lee has taken progressive but unceasing strides to the front lines: as
Juan Diego’s understudy in 2007, he shared the role in 2010 and now
stepped into the full glare of the spotlight. Certainly Lee has the vocal gifts
and musical temperament to dispatch the infamous high Cs in ‘A mes
amis’ — the last relished and sustained to substantial applause.
And, in the yodelling leaps he revealed a heroic timbre to counter his previous
hapless, bumpkin-esque persona, revealing the sincerity of
Tonio’s affections. Although Lee may not possess the physical and vocal
appeal of his predecessor in this production, he does have a confident,
controlled elegance: his superbly shaped, long, legato lines pay
detailed, intelligent attention to phrasing, and the effect is complemented by
a focused vibrato, which was put to superb effect in his tender declaration of
love, the Act 2 aria, ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’.

Returning as the Marquise de Birkenfield, Ann Murray relished the comic
potential of her partnership with Donald Maxwell’s emasculated
Hortensius. Her Act 1 account of the loss of her sister’s child
is in danger of taking on an air of Miss Prism-esque farce — one half
expects Lady Bracknell to pop up pompously pronouncing about perambulators and
handbags. Indeed, one of the disadvantages of repetition is that wry comedy can
become brutish slapstick: more Loony Tunes than Napoleonic rom-com.
That said, as in 2010 Murray’s ‘singing lesson’ with Marie
and Sulpice produced some of the finest musical and theatrical moments in the
performance. And, Alan Opie’s Sulcipe was the warm embodiment of paternal
indulgence — even when his feisty ‘daughter’ disowns him and
declares her intent to find a regiment of ‘nicer daddies’.

La_Fille_ROH_2012_04.gifPatrizia Ciofi as Marie and Alan Opie as Sulpice Pingot

Stepping into Dawn French’s shoes as the Duchesse de Crackentorp, Ann
Widdicome shares little with her predecessor except her girth — or
rather, French’s former girth, given that the latter has
recently revealed a new svelte figure. Hot from her Strictly and panto
successes, Widdicome is clearly riding a popularist wave — rather
surprising for one who made her name as a bastion of Tory/Victorian principled
intolerance. However, politics aside, those who witnessed Widdicome’s
Strictly ‘triumph’ will be aware that rhythm is not one of
her fortes; she possesses none of French’s insouciant comic timing or
improvisatory invention. Indeed, it even seemed quite a challenge for her to
remember her lines. That said, self-referential surtitles — a bellowing
‘Order, Order!’, and many Strictly references —
raised hilarity among the audience, so presumably the ROH management consider
this casting well done. I probably deserve censure for failing to appreciate
Widdicome’s willingness to laugh at herself and her ability to add to the
frivolous fun.

Most pleasingly, the chorus are truly regimented, kept on a tight rein
vocally and visually, relishing the mixture of musical self-discipline and the
threat of dramatic — and military — mishap.

There is a lot of dialogue to get through, and thus the staging and visual
appeal plays an important role in sustaining the audience’s attention:
Chantal Thomas’s cartographical collage is both witty and engaging, while
the distorted perspective of the Marquise’s ch‚teau in Act 2 emphasises
the bizarre nature of the dramatic development. Balletic dusting routines and a
coup de thÈ‚tre tank for Tonio’s rescue mission help to overcome
any potential dramatic longeurs.

Conductor Yves Abel leads the regimental company on a careful but precise
campaign. There was much lovely playing from the ROH orchestra: in the
introduction the horns were wonderfully warm and touching, complemented by
well-shaped, emotive woodwind and string sectional playing. But, Abel’s
tempi were, on the whole, rather slow and conservative — not
quite right for the wild abandon on stage; and, he seemed to feel the need to
signpost every comic moment with a knowing gesture.

Many chuckles derived from Agathe MÈlinand’s surtitles. Indeed, the
current Eurozone tensions gave an added frisson to the notion of an
Italian soprano cast as a French girl, mangling an Italian aria, written by an
Italian for a nineteenth-century French audience, performed in
franglais-laden production, directed by a Frenchman, and translated
for an English audience.

La_Fille_ROH_2012_02.gifAnn Murray as La Marquise De Berkenfeld and Patrizia Ciofi as Marie

In this context, the contemporary reception of Donizetti’s work is
interesting: only two major composers of the age, Mendelssohn and Verdi,
genuinely admired him, the former professing, in response to criticism of
La fille, “I am afraid I like it. I think it very pretty —
it is so merry! Do you know, I should like to have written it myself”.
But others, notably Bellini and Berlioz, were less charitable, perhaps in awe
and afraid of Donizetti’s prodigious output and adaptability. Indeed,
Berlioz accused Donizetti “of treating us like a conquered country; one
can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of those of M.

Pelly’s winning production has similarly conquered foreign stages, and
there are undoubtedly many deserved victories ahead.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Patrizia Ciofi as Marie and Colin Lee as Tonio [Photo © ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper]
product_title=Donizetti: La Fille du Regiment
product_by=Marie: Patrizia Ciofi; Tonio: Colin Lee; Sulpice Pingot: Alan Opie; La Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ann Murray; Hortensius: Donald Maxwell; La Duchesse de Crackentorp: Ann Widdecombe; Corporal: Jonathan Fisher. Conductor: Yves Abel. Director and Costume Design: Laurent Pelly. Revival Director: Christian Rath. Dialogue: Agathe MÈlinand. Set Design: Chantal Thomas. Lighting Design: JoÎl Adam. Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 19th April 2012.
product_id=Above: Patrizia Ciofi as Marie and Colin Lee as Tonio

Photos © ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper