Matinée Fille

12 Mar

The Royal Opera House does mid-week opera matinees so relatively rarely that it never crossed my mind when I booked for the performance of La Fille du Régiment on 12th March that it would start at 2.30.  Fortunately, I noticed in time to avoid conflicts getting into my work diary and, having checked that Florez was indeed down to be singing, I could look forward to a mid-week afternoon off.

Fille is one of my favourite operas.  It’s a charmer from a composer at the height of its powers.  There isn’t a weak number in the show and the situations are touching and witty and, provided the singers are strong, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  It’s a show that should be fun for singers and audience.

I was at the first night of the Pelly production seven years ago.  It must be one of the most travelled productions around at the moment – as well as four series here, there’ve been repeats in Vienna and New York and performances in Paris and Barcelona.  It still strikes me as being as fine a production of the opera as you could hope for.  It has the flair, the charm and the wit to create a really joyous evening – it feels as though the cast are having a whole lot of fun.

Hand on heart, this performance wasn’t quite as good as those memorable 2007 shows.  This isn’t surprising: Pelly wasn’t on hand to rehearse, the cast has changed and, perhaps, there’s just a whiff of routine about it.  It started really well.  Yves Abel conducted a beautifully paced overture with just the right amount of gallic precision and getting Donizetti’s style pretty much spot on.  The orchestra played admirably.  The opening chorus was great and Ewa Podles made a marvellous impression as the Marchioness of Berkenfeld – rather broader than Felicity Palmer and with stronger lower notes – this was a grand, very funny comic performance.  We see her here too little.

I missed the last revival so didn’t see Patricia Ciofi there.  She’s a lovely singer who took Pelly’s conception of the tomboy absolutely to heart.  Was she quite in her best voice?  I thought there was a cloudiness to the sound that didn’t serve her well, particularly in the second act aria.  Otherwise, this was a game, happy, hugely enjoyable interpretation even if she didn’t quite beat Dessay. And there was Juan Diego Florez in one of his great roles.  We’re pretty much used to the charm, the security of the high Cs, the moving, controlled phrasing in his Act II aria.  We shouldn’t take them for granted: he was in glorious form and it’s a joy to watch him reprise one of his finest roles.  Is there anyone you’d rather see in it?

Pietro Spagnoli was a strong Sulpice.  He didn’t have quite the same twinkle as Alessandro Corbelli but, if you hadn’t seen Corbelli, you’d have no complaints.  Donald Maxwell gave a more than reliable performance as Hortensius – witty and really nicely observed and timed, he turned it into a major role.

There was one major weakness.  Apart from sentiment, why did anyone think it was a good idea to ask Kiri Te Kanawa to play the Duchess of Crackenthorpe?  Just looking back over her main roles you don’t see much comedy there or much requiring spoken dialogue (and clarity of words was never her strong point).  What we had was a strikingly handsome woman (playing an old bat) speaking in rushed and pretty execrable French with neither the power nor the timing to make anything of the role.  I don’t think it was a good idea for her sing: you could see why she’s retired.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter: belated loyalty to a much-loved singer is a fine thing, it’s a relatively small role and there is a tradition of former prima donnas taking the role – but those (Welitsch, Edith Coates) had far more experience of the kind of extrovert, dramatic acting than Te Kanawa had. Remembering Dawn French, you could hardly help feeling that the audience here was being badly short-changed.  Couldn’t they have found a better way of celebrating the 70th birthday?  It didn’t wreck the afternoon, but it was a shame.  How about Anja Silja next time?

That’s the only real cavil.  It’s a lovely show and I hope it comes back.

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