Whoever had the idea of pairing Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez in La Fille du régiment deserves a medal. Having scored a hit here in 2007, this production of Donizetti’s military comedy went off on campaign to chalk up further victories in Vienna and New York and has now returned, with its original cast more or less intact, for a further run of performances back at base.

It remains a thoroughly winning show. Donizetti wrote La Fille du régiment for the Opéra-Comique in Paris, so this is an opera with spoken dialogue – too much, perhaps, for modern tastes – but the music is a delightful potpourri of Rossini’s clockwork precision, faux-French elegance, and a few of those wistful early romantic melodies that give Donizetti’s comedies a beating heart.

It also has one role that steps outside the usual range of stock characters: tomboy Marie, the “daughter of the regiment”. The list of sopranos who have counted the role their own includes some of the most famous in operatic history – Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Joan Sutherland, and now surely Natalie Dessay. From her first entrance Dessay is a whirlwind of activity, ironing soldier’s shirts, peeling the spuds, and generally keeping the regiment on its toes. Her non-stop Marie, with her flailing arms and wide eyes, is as vivid as any cartoon character. Think feisty Olive Oyl crossed with hyperactive Bugs Bunny. And, though her voice is sometimes on the thin side, she sings with an energy and sincerity that give her a formidable arsenal.

The director, Laurent Pelly, has also helped to create a physical character for Juan Diego Flórez as an all-wrists-and-ankles Tyrolean country boy, but all that really matters when Flórez sings is voice, voice, voice. The top Cs in “Ah! mes amis” ring out as confidently as before – no encore here – and he sings his final declaration of love with supreme delicacy. The welcome new member of the cast is Ann Murray, who brings excellent French and a disarming hauteur to the role of the Marquise de Berkenfeld. Alessandro Corbelli, Donald Maxwell and Dawn French repeat their star cameos. Bruno Campanella is the sparkling conductor. Even those averse to Donizetti will surely have to run up the white flag of surrender.

5 star rating


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