PATRIZIA CIOFI AS MARIE, PIETRO SPAGNOLI AS SULPICE PINGOT © ROH / CATHERINE ASHMORE
Reviewed by James Karas
Watching La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I was struck by the similarities between opera and Olympic figure skating. You see the handsome couple glide around the ice surface, leap gracefully in the air, twirl several times and land as if they were snowflakes falling to the ground.
We enjoy all of it but most attention is paid to those difficult moves, those twirls and those landings. One mistake and farewell medal contention.
La Fille has broad comedy, splendid music and some of the toughest arias in the repertoire. Donizetti was not satisfied with just a work of melodies and comic business – he wanted vocal gymnastics. What else would you call nine high Cs in one aria alone?
In the current production, as in the Olympics, there is stiff competition. In this case it is Canada v. Peru. You will recall, the Canadian pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir giving a breathtaking performance at Sochi. With utter objectivity, good faith and sound judgment, we expected them to win gold. They were pitch perfect in their singing …er …skating, got all the high notes (OK, there were a couple of booboos, but the others were worse) and in the end Canada ended up with silver.
The tenor in La Fille who belted out the nine high Cs for the first four performances of the current revival of Laurent Pelly’s production was Peruvian superstar Juan Diego Flórez. For the final two performances, the role was sung by Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun. Like most of the Canadian team at Sochi, Antoun is a Quebecois. The Peruvian has sung the role of Tonio umpteen times, in fact he sang it at the Met in 2008 and that performance was broadcast around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. The audience could not stop applauding at the time. It was like watching those Russian gymnasts who dominate that sport as if they own it.
Antoun was making his debut at Covent Garden and one could compare the standoff between Canada and Peru like a David and Goliath match of the vocal chords. Before we get to the singing pyrotechnics, the defining twirls in the air, so to speak, we listen with pleasure to Antoun skating around his notes with grace, and beauty. We notice that his partner Marie (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) has a big and marvelous voice. She brings energy and vocal resonance to a delightful Marie. Her voice is just a bit bigger than our Canadian hero’s.
We arrive at the crucial test of the high Cs in Tonio’s first act aria “Pour mon âme” and hold our breath. Will Canada best Peru? With poise and ease, Antoun leaps once, twice … nine times and does not miss a single beat. The audience, those relentless judges, roars its approval. In the medals ceremony, alas, as happened to Tessa and Scott the gold medal went to the Peruvian. As gracious Canadians, we accept the result but do not give up.
La Fille, as its name states, contains a regiment and Choreographer Laura Scozzi has created dance routines and comic business around Donizetti’s boisterous music.
Contralto Ewa Podleś played La Marquise de Berkenfeld. She is a crusty old woman and Podleś enjoyed showing off her low notes and indeed getting a laugh out of them. That is what a good singer/actor does in a comic opera – sing well and evoke laughter.
Pietro Spagnoli has better vocal power than comic talent, or at least he was not allowed to display the latter. Pelly had him play more a straight man than a broadly comic character.
Dame Kiri te Kanawa made a cameo appearance as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. She did some vocalizing, sang an aria, did some comic business and the audience loved her. She just turned 70 and nothing other than appreciation and applause are called for.
The set by Chantal Thomas consisted of indications of a mountainous area covered by maps in the first act and wood-paneled opulence in the second act.
Pelly moved the action from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The reason escapes me. War as fun and glory never existed but one is more ready to accept it as myth in the Tyrolean Alps of two hundred years ago than in the trenches of the Great War one hundred years ago. Christian Räth was the revival director.
Despite the World War I setting, including a tank, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production be it with Flores or Antoun.
But one of my convictions is absolute and unshakeable: Tessa and Scott should have gotten the gold medal at the Olympics. As for Juan Diego, it won’t be too long before Canada produces a tenor who will consider nine high Cs in an aria as a mere warm up. And the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup!
La Fille du Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti was performed six times between March 3 and 18, 2014 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk