(above: Flórez as Tonio, Dessay as Marie, Felicity Palmer as the Marquise of Berkenfield, and Marian Seldes as the Duchess of Krakenthorp)
Opera Chic has been talking about it since February 2007, the London critics went insane over it last winter, and over a year later, Natalie Dessay & Juan Diego Flórez in the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, are poised to take over New York City.
OC wasn’t completely left out of the recent La Fille Fever, however, as she was in Milan in January 2007 for Scala’s highly anticipated, historic La Fille, when Juan Diego Flórez broke the long-standing ban against encores, and belted a second round of “Ah! mes amis” to the delight of the bad-boy loving opera world.
Missing from that Scala performance was Natalie Dessay, who, as we reported here, canceled her appearance as lead Marie (rumor had it, purportedly hating as much as we did the garish, dated, and frankly boring Zeffirelli production that Scala fished from storage). Instead we had a sufficient Désirée Rancatore singing the lead as Marie, who unfortunately now pales in comparison to her colleague Dessay after witnessing yesterday’s treat. Not that she wasn't any good...but gott dayyum!
To begin the open dress rehearsal (THANK U MET MANAGEMENT & the NY State Council on the Arts!) Gelb stepped out on the stage and made a few announcements, and the curtain lifted. The overture played while a flat projection took form on stage, showing gray, stacked slabs of concrete with "1840" and "La Fille du Régiment" etched across, homage to the premiere performance at Paris's Opéra-Comique that same year.
(above: costumes on display, taken straight from the Laurent Pelly production of La Fille @ the MET.)
Listen up now and enjoy Marco Armiliato's elegant, controlled color of great understanding and tireless energy -- as the opening piece becomes one of the rare moments during the next couple of hours when the audience doesn't chuckle and guffaw unrestrained at Laurent Pelly's comedic direction or Agathe Mélinand's libretto rewrites (for OC an unfortunate mar of the entire production that decimated Donizetti's lively yet stylish score, the rare moments of subtlety inaudible over the over-achieving audience). Comedic, yes, this production brings the lawls. But the drama comes through too far & few in between, and when it did, it felt disjointed to the prior riots. To counteract the buffoonery of the direction, Maestro Armiliato carefully balanced Donizetti's composition, which was sadly lost in the unvarying hee-hawing of the audience.
Act I's curtain lifted to the Austrian Alps, and the MET chorus was dressed in local villager garb, swarming over their belongings that looked like something out of Fiddler on The Roof, straight from the Broadway stage. The chorus huddled over makeshift
armoires and wardrobes. The chorus performed their first piece, inspired by something from the opening scene of a Mel Brooks’ Broadway ruse, replete with a can-can-style romp. The chorus needs to seriously firm it up, and it seemed the women’s chorus in particular couldn't handle doing two things at once: singing and dancing. Discordant & reedy.
Finally the peasants' carts roll away to reveal Act I's scenery: three large maps folded and re-molded to create life-sized mountains and mounds as the troops of the 21st regiment campgrounds, sleeping cots sprinkled through the folds. Set designer Chantal Thomas said during the Q&A that the scale of such common things to create landscapes was to create discordance between predictable human scales. More curious, Chantal continued that it also helped make the 21st Regiment seem like toy soldiers on a battlefield. Very sweet, as indeed the regiment takes on a dioramic toy solider feel.
La Fille is supposed to take place in the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, but Pelly's is updated to occur during WWI. Because of this, lots of rewrites in the libretto glibly pepper the dialogue, aiming to refresh and satirize the old version, but more on that later.
The heroine of the opera, Natalie Dessay entered holding white laundry in her arms; a white wife beater tucked into the washed, seal blue felty uniform pants of the 21st regiment, a wig showing a shock of orange hair and a small braid in the back. Elastic suspenders were a nice touch, which she snapped against her (non existent) bewbs during one of her early tantrums.
(above: costumes for the 21st Regiment for the Laurent Pelly production of La Fille @ the MET)
Dessay is a good sport for wearing something so insanely unflattering and icky, both color and cut. But she is Marie, the embodiment of the tough & fast-talking (but sensitive & tender) tomboy. Although insanely petite and slender, her lithe dancers’ body is magnetic, and it's impossible to track anyone else when she's on. Her first vocal feat -- in tandem with on stage-daddy, an endearing Sergeant Sulpice sung by bass Alessandro Corbelli -- "Et comme un soldat j'ai du coeur!", slowly built to a memorable duet, where moments of comic relief were indeed apropos to the libretto, as in one instance, she recalled when he took her riding as a little girl, and then proceeded to mount him as if he were a horse, riding on his back and spouting her lines.
Fast forward to Juan Diego Flórez's entrance, in clean, adorable, traditional Tyrolean lederhosen...a white blouse, a full flap, shorts, and oatmeal wool knee socks with boots. Sexay. A new OC fetish? Or is it Tyrolean chic?
Fomr the first time Flórez and Dessay were together on stage, they fit against each other perfectly. Both petite and buoyant, their bodies echoed and folded on stage as comfortably as twins, although they simultaneously managed to spark that necessary chemistry as young, excitable lovers.
Dessay was sublime. She truly gave everything she had in creating Marie, a role she clearly enjoys. The energy is unable to be contained, and she twirled around the stage like a hyperactive kid. The role fits her like a glove, and once you see her as Marie, you can't imagine anyone ever coming close, and the recyclable Maries that we've seen on stage before are simply underwhelming. She had moments of brilliant, spoken-word vignettes, perfectly regressing into the saturnine mind of a reeling teen between the turmoil of love and adolescence. One of her memorable bits of comedy occurred as she read the letter outing her legacy before Suplice and the Marquise of Berkenfield, doing so in a choppy flow of latent illiteracy for what seemed ten minutes.
Flórez’s “Ah! mes amis” had a less-than-stellar male chorus struggling to keep sync with Armiliato's sprite, but not-too-quick tempo. It was far from perfect, but it simply made Flórez shine all the more. He proceeded to push his notes out more staccato than I've ever heard, but still in perfect form.
Marie’s tragic “Il faut partir, adieu!” is not a moment of omg lol, but as Dessay came out hauling a wash line of the 21st Regiment's long johns to begin her aria, the audience was hysterical, only to be deafened in silence 10 seconds later when they realized it wasn't a work of comedic relief. For this OC was not so fond of such egregious ploys at rewrites and slapstick direction…as the audience began to single out the smallest idiosyncrasy as a bid for comedy.
(above: costume sketches from the Laurent Pelly La Fille @ the MET)
It was during Act II's opening scene (where the castle has been represented as a skewed drawing room with picture frames instead of walls), with such a delicate and elegant touch by Maestro Armiliato that the comedic action on stage was just oblivious to Donizetti's score (as well as later on when the wedding guests arrive, stooped over in old age and tottering around on stage, the audience was laughing so loud that the graceful undertones of the strings could not be heard at all). As four maids dusted the Berkenfield castle, it seemed to bring on paroxysms that lasted like 5 minutes.
It was also during Act II that the rewrites from the Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-Francois-Alfred Bayard libretto went into overdrive. The Duchess of Krakenthorp (played by an excellent Marian Seldes, replacing an ill Zoe Caldwell for the entire run, who we don’t mind as a Tony-Award winning Broadway actress who made her stage debut in 1947) made comments about arriving to the palace from her Bentley, with another comment thrown around from the Marquise about someone being on the bobsled team. Don't ask.
Loads of English language dialogue is thrown in from the Duchess of Krakenthorp (and the Marquise of Berkenfield, too), who plowed ahead bullying everyone with American idioms and phrases like, "whatever, whatever". There were also rewrites that weren't necessarily from Donizetti's time, such as an order for the wedding party, to "not be stingy with the verve clicquot." ho hum. Another instance? In Act I, after Tonio utters, "Je t'aime, Marie," their subsequent duet literally interjects their love feeling like, "électrochoc". One of the punchier aberrations of the dialogue (tho' an addition in French) is when Marie screams to the audience that she is a free woman, ending the statement with a triumphant, "merde".
“C'en est donc fait” was lovely from Marie, but the orchestra still had a few obvious rusty spots to be worked on. The climax of Act II, when the 21st Regiment came rushing in to reunite with their beloved Marie is loads of fun, via a makeshift, miniaturized army tank ferrying the way loaded with too many soldiers like a circus clown car.
“Tous les trois réunis” was adorable, with lightning-fast head turns from Dessay to echo the opening measures that had the audience reeling. The closing finale ended with an etching of a rooster suspended from the ceiling, who crowed a triumphant call at the closing strains of the opera.
The upcoming performance on April 26, 2008 from The Metropolitan Opera House will be transmitted live in high definition to movie theaters for those of you who didn’t spring to pluck-up tickets back in January (when they were almost already sold-out), most likey from the two identical cameras on dollies that swing obnoxiously from the first two opposing parterre boxes. O hai btw, practically this whole production is on youtube, as it was broadcast live from Austria's ORF.
During the Q&A after the performance, Marco Armiliato was delayed, as the starchy tuxedo was just too much for him to bear any longer, and reappeared wearing a red cotton polo shirt, black blazer, and jeans, in great spirits, complimenting cast and crew alike.
(above: Maestro Marco Armiliato, bro of Fabio, and Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice during the Q&A for the MET's Laurent Pelly la Fille)
Newlywed La Julia Trappe was in the audience waiting for her new husband, wearing the spoils of the recent wedding gifts from head to toe, cashing in on the lovely exchange rate for Euro card holders…Extensions added to her newly-platinum locks (which she wore in a ponytail), a cream-colored blazer and bright, um, slacks...sporting a new Gucci (we're pretty sure) bag from the Spring line and silk scarf.
Flórez, when questioned, said that this cast was the original, and the best he’s worked with. The same from London, rehearsals in NYC were much easier this time. Dessay spoke about her energy and physical prowess on stage, saying that her voice was gone by the end of the dress rehearsal (we noticed, but hey, it's the dress rehearsal). And Marian Seldes as the Duchess of Krakenthorp said that it was her opera stage debut.
We rushed out into the gorgeous Spring weather after the show, confident that this one will again, conquer its critics and adhere itself as one of the resonant, iconic Filles of the new generation. OC will be there for la prima on Monday night, ready to report any revisions or if the drama llama rears its ugly head!