BWW Review: LA FILLE DU REGIMENT, Royal Opera House
Lighter than a macaron and every bit as deliciously Gallic, Donizetti's La fille du regiment swaps the composer's signature brand of robust, Italian comedy for something frothier, more melt-in-the-mouth. Add to that director Laurent Pelly - go-to Frenchman for whimsy and colour - and you have a classic operatic amuse-bouche.
Four revivals may be stretching London's taste for sugary delights (the production debuted in 2007 and has returned every few years since), but if you've got the stomach for another musical melee of long-lost daughters, love at first sight and more military marches than a brass band convention, then this really is a cast worth seeing.
The Napoleonic Wars are the backdrop to this gentlest of comedies. Discovered as a baby on the battlefield, Marie is adopted and raised by a regiment of French soldiers. When she falls in love with Tyrolean Tonio it complicates matters (she has sworn to marry only a regimental soldier), and the arrival of the Marquise de Berkenfield, who claims Marie as her missing niece and carries her off to make an advantageous marriage only turns the dramatic screw further. Suffice to say, after many comic contortions, a happy ending ensues.
Designer Chantal Thomas keeps us in period, but reduces the opera's sprawling geography to storybook mountains and valleys, carved out of giant maps, with Berkenfield Castle - all topsy-turvy, fading grandeur - propped precariously on top.Into this playground of a set romps an irrepressible cast led by French soprano Sabine Devielhe - far too rare a visitor to the Royal Opera.
Marie's vocal acrobatics and high-wire coloratura hold no fear for Devielhe, who dispatches roulades of semiquavers while peeling sacks of potatoes, ironing up a storm or dispatching one of choreographer Laura Scozzi's revue-style dance numbers. A straight-talking tomboy initially, Devielhe's Marie softens in Act II into delightfully awkward tenderness. This isn't a big voice, but there's such a sheen on the tone and so crisp is her diction that she has no problem projecting over Evelino Pido's pit.
Juan Diego Florez may be the current Tonio of choice internationally, but young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena is snapping at his heels. There's a puppyish innocence and optimism about him that the more mature Florez can no longer fake, and the energy between his wide-eyed Tonio and Devielhe's exuberant, scattergun Marie is just right. Vocally there are no doubts either. Just in case anyone doubted the famous sequence of top C's Camarena dispatched in "Ah! Mes Amis", he repeated them all again in an encore, still leaving himself plenty of voice for more unscheduled above-the-stave action after the interval.
Enkelejda Shkoza's skittish Marquise leads a superb supporting cast, including Pietro Spagnoli and a grotesquely moustached Sulpice and Donald Maxwell as put-upon factotum Hortensius. The speaking role of the Duchesse de Crakentorp (taken in previous revivals by as haphazard a selection of stars as Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Widdicombe and Dawn French) here proves a natural fit for an imperious Miranda Richardson - every bit as icily poised and dismissive in French as in English.
Pido plays the straight man to Pelly's clown, offering gentle, discursive comedy and lightly rolling rhythms rather than anything more obviously knockabout. It's a decision that keeps things just the right side of indulgent - a crisp and colourful farce with an authentic French accent.
Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton