Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment: Smiles and Tears

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On March 2, movie houses around the globe will screen Gaetano Donizetti’s opéra comiqueLa Fille du régiment (1840), live from the Metropolitan. The performance will star the soprano Pretty Yende and the tenor Javier Camarena. If until the late 1960s, general managers would want to stage the opera for a favorite soprano, since then it has been programmed subject to the availability of a tenor with a very secure upper register. Indeed, absent a tenor blessed with a high extension, La Fille du régiment will not be on the boards. 

The Met premiere of Donizetti’s work was staged in 1902 for Marcella Sembrich; it was revived in 1917-18 for Frieda Hempel. Our story begins in December 1940 when a new production was mounted for the company’s then reigning coloratura, Lily Pons. By that time, France had been at war with Germany for more than a year; the United States would enter the conflict a year later. Newspapers all over the country carried a photograph of the finale of La Fille du régiment in which, in place of the traditional French Tricolor, the flag of France occupied by the Nazis, French-born Pons waved the Cross of Lorraine of General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French. The Met orchestra played first “La Marseillaise” and then, as the Stars and Stripes were brought to the front of the stage and the Cross of Lorraine was dipped in tribute, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some among those present were sure to remember that in 1918, three days after the Armistice, Hempel had interpolated the moving World War I anthem, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” 

Pons was the Met’s preeminent coloratura from her 1931 debut to her departure from the company nearly three decades later. Through concerts, movies, radio, and recordings, her name had become a household word. Her rendition of “Salut à la France (Hail to France)” shows off the technique that captivated her fans. The cadenza at the aria’s conclusion, replete with a flute accompaniment reminiscent of the “Mad Scene” of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, exploits her fluency in embellishment and astonishing ease in alt, in the very highest notes of the soprano range.

Thirty years later, the Met revived La Fille du régiment. The new production brandished two superstars, the soprano Joan Sutherland and the tenor Luciano Pavarotti. On February 17, 1972, when Pavarotti nailed the nine high Cs of his first act aria “Ah, mes amis (Ah, my friends),” often omitted by less intrepid singers, the audience belonged to him, and since then audiences will not be denied the signature moment of the evening. And what is more, spectators, at least at the Met since Juan Diego Flórez’s stunning feat in 2008, consider an encore obligatory. Here is Pavarotti as he fires off his volley of high Cs in a live 1967 London performance..

The popularity of La Fille du régiment owes much to the virtuosic hurdles it poses to the principal singers. But Donizetti’s rich melodies and elegiac manner are also intrinsic to the score. At the end of Act I, Marie, the daughter of the regiment, bids a tearful farewell to her cherished troops. “Il faut partir (I must leave)” summons the soprano’s most long-breathed legato, an opportunity that Beverly Sills embraces in this 1970 live performance.

Tonio, the tenor role, also has a long moment of deep sentiment. In Act II, he pleads with Marie’s mother for permission to marry his beloved. Flórez’s elegant style is a perfect match for the elegant phrases of “Pour me rapprocher de Marie (To bring me close to Marie)” in this 2007 Vienna performance.