Michael Tipler reviews the joint Opera della Luna/ Buxton International Festival production of Donizetti’s opera
La Fille Du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) was the comic opera with which, in 1840, Donizetti began his domination of the opera scene in 19th century Paris – generally considered the ‘artistic capital of the western world’— after successes in Italy with Anna Bolena (1830) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).
In light romantic/comic vein, it concerns Marie, a tomboyish young woman found abandoned as a baby and adopted by a regiment of soldiers, all of whom she regards affectionately as her ‘fathers.’ She has just been rescued from a dangerous situation (and had her romantic feelings stirred in the process) by Tonio, a stranger regarded at first with suspicion and hostility, but later welcomed into the ranks of the regiment so that Marie, whose feelings they fondly respect, can marry one of their own.
It becomes clear that Marie is, in fact, the product of a scandalous liaison between her natural father, an adventurer now deceased, and a young female member of the socially elite Berkenfield family. On discovering Marie’s whereabouts, her Aunt (nursing a secret of her own) reclaims the foundling, intending to smooth over her rough edges and make her fit to restore the family fortunes by marrying the son of her wealthy friend the Duchess of Crackenthorpe.
Musically, it is appropriately lightweight, with soldierly chorus numbers and sentimental ballads for the heroine, who also delivers her version of the regimental anthem. But the best-known aria is the tenor’s “Ah, mes amis….pour mon ame,” giddy with new-found love, and loaded with a notoriously demanding string of nine high C’s. This is the number that opera buffs will be waiting for.
Opera buffs, be warned! Purists, beware! This is an Opera della Luna production!
Sung in English—of a sort—the concept and the script are by company founder and Director Jeff Clarke. Aficionados of the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival (now relocated to Harrogate), which for twenty years followed the Opera Festival into Buxton Opera House, will be aware of Opera della Luna’s way with G&S operettas: a disregard for the traditions and conventions of D’Oyly Carte, and a relish of modern salty suggestiveness, while maintaining affection for the original and respecting Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s wit. Jeff Clarke does not hold back from a dash of vulgarity in the language, a dose of slapstick in the comedy, even a passing suggestion of ‘queer camp’ and gender-bending cross-dressing. And so it is here with Donizetti!
Do not expect a full opera orchestra and chorus. Female choristers are dispensed with altogether and the males majorly reduced in number, though the few voices deliver their chorus work strongly. Do not expect Frenchness, or anything military. This Regiment is a cohort of Harley-riding ageing hairy bikers with their own code of Freedom and Honour, who camp out in the central desert of California with the Berkenfield mansion perched in the mountains above. Their leader retains his original name, Sulpice; his six gang members are dubbed Tulip, Beef, Tiny, Crispy, Rabbit and Lump. Californian drawl pervades the air, and Marie has learned to spit and raise a one-fingered salute if provoked.
While clearly enjoying herself in the character and throwing herself enthusiastically into the stage business, Elin Pritchard delivers Marie’s music with great accomplishment, a range of emotion, and full, sweet tone. As Tonio, the young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez is an attractive love-interest, if at times seeming a little inhibited in delivery. His strongly accented dialogue demands attentive listening. But he makes an engaging character, in this production topically suggestive of an illegal immigrant, a Mexican border-runner. If lacking the panache of a Pavarotti or Juan Diego Florez, his light tenor is pleasing to the ear, and his nine high C’s are carefully placed and secure. Job done!
But irreverent fun is the order of the day. Political correctness is out of the window and language is informal: in the first fifteen minutes Sulpice is heard to admit “I’m sh*tting myself”; when Marie is first introduced to her Aunt she exclaims “Holy crap!”; Tonio is first introduced as “a frigging spic.” In the opening of Act Two, Hortense, the Berkenfields’ camp Butler, has his suggestive way with a banana; and the famous singing lesson (designed to instil some ‘culture’ into a rebellious Marie) descends into hilarious physical comedy involving the abuse of a basket of oranges.
Later, party guests (almost entirely created in imagination by the butler’s mime) assemble to mark the proposed union of the Berkenfield and Crackenthorpe families. Social-climber Marsha Berkenfield is styled for all the world as if she is playing Mrs Simpson in an Abdication drama, while a transgendered Dulcie Crackenthorpe brings to mind Arthur Askey dragged up as Charley’s Aunt. When the bikers invade the mansion to rescue their adopted daughter for Tonio, now their temporary leader, she exclaims in rich baritone, “OMG, she’s a biker’s bitch!” Finally, Aunt Berkenfield’s secret is revealed, general reconciliation follows, and the young people’s love-match is celebrated in a jubilant, typically Donizettian ensemble.
Who knows how many of the first-nighters in a very full house had done their homework and knew what they were in for, and how many were shocked by what they saw and heard? In the event, the enthusiastic, sustained applause with whoops and cheers removed any doubts—a massive verdict in favour of Opera della Luna.
Further performance: 15th of July, 2pm