One of the most highly anticipated events of the Met season, Laurent Pelly’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera “La Fille du Regiment” rides in on a wave of enthusiastic reviews garnered at previous stops in London and Vienna. The work itself is far from perfect — its saggy second half is dragged down by one too many slow, mournful arias. But Pelly counteracts this weakness with an agreeably witty take on the opera’s gossamer plot, coaxing some memorable comic performances out of a fine cast of singing actors.
The embodiment of everything that comes to mind with the term “comic opera,” the piece is set in the Swiss Tyrol and stuffed with clumsy, cartoonish soldiers, overly ardent young lovers and self-important grandes dames. Its heroine, Marie, adopted as a foundling by the 21st regiment, is quite happy serving as mascot until she falls head over heels for a local Tyrolean peasant.
Meanwhile, a Marquise who claims to be her aunt insists on spiriting off the tomboy to her chateau to turn her into a lady, Pygmalion-style, allowing her to enter into an arranged marriage with the son of a local duchess.
Pelly has moved the original time period up a hundred years to the WWI era, which neither helps nor hurts the narrative but provides an opportunity for a good sight gag with an armored tank rescue at the climax. Chantal Thomas’ economical-looking sets are meant to resemble large battle maps, with a skeletonized version of the parlor of the Marquise’s chateau set against them in Act Two.
The Met’s enormous stage and vast auditorium can be comedy killers, and that is often the case during this production’s lengthy sequences of spoken dialogue between the musical set-pieces. Associate director Agathe Melinand expanded and adapted the spoken scenes.
Superstar soprano Natalie Dessay is the only native French speaker in the cast, and it shows. Nearly everyone else draws out their dialogue delivery to metronomic pacing, hobbled by speaking in a language not their own.
The exception is New York stage treasure Marian Seldes, who replaced originally announced Zoe Caldwell and creates a malevolently funny cameo out of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Growling in French and spitting out the occasional nasty aside in English, Seldes comes across as a delicious cross between Dame Edith Evans and a tarantula.
An actress before she became a singer, Dessay is tough and adorable in undershirt and suspenders as a very butch little Marie, and her hoydenish physical humor is inspired. The somewhat glassy edge that occasionally creeps into her voice may not be to all tastes, but her distinctive timbre, vocal fluidity and sensitive phrasing are nonetheless a pleasure.
Charismatic tenor Juan Diego Florez makes an excellent romantic partner for Dessay, stealing the show right from under her with his effortlessly sung showpiece aria “Pour mon ame” — which features nine push-button high C’s. The audience response to this on opening night was so tumultuous that, in a rare break with Met tradition, Florez immediately gave an encore, acknowledging the wave of love by breaking the fourth wall and blowing kisses to the crowd in a welcome display of old-fashioned male diva-dom.
Alessandro Corbelli is amusing as Sulpice, the sergeant who is Marie’s father figure, and canny veteran contralto Felicity Palmer booms out earthy chest tones and radiates Margaret Dumont-style hauteur as the Marquise. Donald Maxwell, as her servant Hortensius, may need a few more performances in order to create a memorable impression in the Met’s wide-open spaces.
In the pit, Marco Armiliato conducts with bounce and verve whenever possible, but can do little with the built-in longueurs of the second act.