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How seriously can we take Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment? According to one of its first critics, the composer Hector Berlioz, not particularly. But not being serious is a very serious business, and one which comes to the fore in Laurent Pelly’s revived staging.
Now in Christian Räth’s hands, Pelly’s interpretation takes parody to a whole new level, inflating characterisations to supersize proportions. And though no longer a novelty to the Royal Opera House, it still fizzes with the energy of a loveable, boisterous puppy. That’s partly down to the charm of Chantal Thomas’s sets, featuring a landscape of vast maps, moulded into a mountain range. It has still more to do with Pelly’s wry sense of humour, manifested in practically every detail of his surreal imagination: the marching washing-line of long johns; Tonio’s final entrance, anachronistically, on a tank, as he arrives to claim Marie for himself.
But what really carries the evening are the singers and the orchestra, galvanised by Yves Abel’s propulsive conducting. Seven years ago Juan Diego Flórez became the first person since 1933 to sing an encore at La Scala, when, by popular demand, he reprised the opera’s most celebrated, and feared, tenor aria, “Ah! Mes amis”. Here he sweeps through the party piece as if it were a nursery rhyme, dispatching the nine infamous high Cs with the same suavity and heroism that he brings to his reading of Tonio as a whole.
He has a fair match in soprano Patrizia Ciofi, who demonstrates just what Marie should be: a messy, unaffected tomboy with an underlying fragility – both in voice and demeanour – that occasionally rises to the surface, not least when she prepares to leave her beloved regiment behind. Ciofi marks this moment and many others with genuine depth and feeling.
The remaining characters whip up an impressive pantomime. Pietro Spagnoli contributes a cuddly Sulpice, with plenty of vocal heft. Ewa Podleś summons up formidable chest-tones as La Marquise de Berkenfeld, while Kiri Te Kanawa – this week celebrating her 70th birthday – seems in her element as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. She and Podleś battle it out, with hilarious conviction, to be the grandest of all Grandes Dames.