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Salut à la France

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
02/06/2010 -  and February 10, 13, 16, 19*, 22, 2010
Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment
Diana Damrau (Marie), Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio), Meredith Arwady (Marquise of Berkenfield), Maurizio Muraro (Sulpice), Kiri Te Kanawa (Duchess of Krakenthorp), Donald Maxwell (Hortensius), Roger Andrews (Corporal), Jeffrey Mosher (Townsman), Jack Wetherall (Notary)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (Conductor)
Laurent Pelly (Production), Chantal Thomas (Set Design), Laurent Pelly (Costume Design), Joel Adam (Lighting Design), Laura Scozzi (Choreographer), Agathe Melinande (Stage Director)

D. Damrau & J.D. Florez & M.Muraro (© Ken Howard)

In the midst of an extended spell of dreadful weather, the capacity audience at the Metropolitan Opera really needed a lift. Before the curtain rose, there was an air of apprehension, which quickly turned to gloom, when the house lights went up and a representative of the Met walked out onto the stage. “Oh no,” cried the audience, no doubt recalling events from three nights before when both Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau withdrew from the performance due to ill health. But all was well – almost. Both would sing tonight, although Flórez was still suffering from a cold. Gratitude and relief flooded the auditorium. (This is not to take anything away from his substitute on Tuesday, the marvelous tenor, Lawrence Brownlee, who had agreed to step in and learn the French dialogue in a matter of a few hours. But Flórez is a house favorite.)

The plot is simple, albeit quite silly. Marie is a foundling brought up by a regiment of soldiers she calls her papas. As the opera opens, refugees in the Tyrolean Alps are fleeing a regiment of victorious French forces led by Sergeant Sulpice. There is really nothing to fear: Marie’s papas are more prone to demonstrations of affection than violence. The plot turns on love, not war. Marie has caught the eye of Tonio, a peasant fetchingly attired in lederhosen. He shows his love for her by joining the French regiment. But the two are soon parted when Marie is taken away by the Marquise, who tells Sulpice that she is Marie’s aunt. It turns out that the Marquise is actually her mother. But never mind. Sulpice goes off to the chateau to keep Marie company. Just before an arranged marriage to an aristocrat can take place, the regiment arrives, with Tonio astride a tank. Marie will marry for love and all ends happily.

This marvelously effective and affecting concoction is a co-production with the Royal Opera House and the Vienna Staatsoper. It first appeared at the Met in 2008, with Flórez and Natalie Dessay in the leading roles. The spare and highly stylized staging by Chantal Thomas updates the story from the time of the Napoleonic Wars to the World War I period. Large maps stand in for the mountains of the Tyrolean Alps. The Marquise’s chateau is represented by a room with no walls.

It’s a frenetically energetic and madcap production with everything from dancing laundry, maids cleaning house in a synchronized slow motion ballet, and coloratura delivered by our heroine while she is ironing, peeling potatoes, jumping, lying down, falling down, and even being carried off the stage in a horizontal position. You name it Dessay did it and so too does Damrau.

When this production debuted at the Met, Flórez’s singing of “Pour mon âme” became a news story. For the first time since Luciano Pavarotti sang “E lucevan le stella”, fourteen years before, there was a solo encore. Flórez sang “Pour mon âme” – with its nine high C’s twice. After his eighteenth high C, he received a standing ovation.

Two years later, Flórez was back, but given his indisposition, how would he do? As he began, there was palpable tension in the audience. After the sixth, high C, there came a beat of silence. There was an audible intake of breath (ours, not his). Then he dispatched the final two flawlessly, including the last one magnificently sustained. It seemed to me that he had been saving his voice a bit during the first act, but after his tour de force, he allowed himself to sing with more power. Actually, Flórez’s best vocal performance of the evening came in the second act, in “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” a heartfelt plea to the Marquise that she allow Marie to marry for love. His is not among the largest tenor voices at the Met, but he projects extremely well. He also has enormous charm as well as excellent comic timing.

Marie is a much more emotionally complex character than Tonio. And she sings a lot more music. There are huge demands – vocal, dramatic, and in the case of this production, acrobatic. It is after all a production designed to showcase the marvelous gifts of Natalie Dessay, but Diane Damrau truly made the character of Marie her own. Damrau has a beautiful lyrical voice and spot-on coloratura, which seems to issue from the mood of the character, be it joyous, angry, stubborn, or mournful. If she had lingering cold-related fatigue, one would have never guessed it by watching her. Similarly, and more critically, there were no vocal limitations in her marvelous performance. Her “Il faut partir” was plaintive and touching, with ravishing pianissimos.

Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice was an endearing papa with superb comic timing and a richly colored bass voice. As the Marquise, the young Meredith Arwady gave a beautifully characterized and richly comic performance. Donald Maxwell as the haughty Hortense, the perpetually exasperated butler, was superb.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa returned to the Met as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a speaking role which was enlarged for her. She did a richly camp star turn as the duchess as diva. She made her entrance, while singing along with the orchestra. And she interpolated a song by Ginastera which she hummed to great effect. The audience gave her a rousing reception and highly appreciative applause.

Marco Armiliato and the Met orchestra conveyed the energy, joie de vivre and melodic beauty of the score. The Met chorus, in their incarnations as the proud papas and the aristocratic wedding guests were wonderful. The opera ends with everyone on stage singing the rousing reprise of “Salut à la France”. It seemed to me that much of the audience was aching to sing along. Unlike many evenings when many rush for the exits, almost everyone remained in their seats, lustily applauding and cheering the cast. When Flórez came out for his bow, he got a standing ovation. Damrau’s reception was just as enthusiastic. It was a truly marvelous evening – a celebration of love, laughter, and the magic of music.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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