LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT – Gaetano Donizetti


For most of the 19th Cen­tury Paris was the artis­tic cap­i­tal of the West­ern world. It offered a sophis­ti­ca­tion and cos­mopoli­tan atmos­phere unequaled any­where else. There was an intel­lec­tual free­dom, often cou­pled with larger fees, plus gen­uine admi­ra­tion and respect for artists that were unique at the time. The result was that opera com­posers hun­gered for a great Parisian suc­cess the way Amer­i­can play­wrights dream of writ­ing a Broad­way smash hit. That’s not to sug­gest that tri­umphs in Milan, Rome, Naples, and Vienna – among other major cities – were neg­li­gi­ble. But to be acclaimed in Paris was to know one had truly arrived at the height of one’s career

Gae­tano Donizetti (1797 – 1848) achieved that suc­cess with his very first French opera, La Fille du Rég­i­ment (The Daugh­ter of the Reg­i­ment). It showed every­one he could write an opera in French, for a French the­ater, that Parisians would eagerly take to their hearts — so much so that one of its num­bers, the soprano’s “Salut à la France” became the unof­fi­cial French national anthem dur­ing the Sec­ond Empire.

When Donizetti arrived in Paris in Octo­ber 1838, he was already a well-established com­poser. Anna Bolena (1830) had reached Paris the fol­low­ing year and enjoyed an out­stand­ing run at the Théâtre-Italien, though his three sub­se­quent operas there were much less suc­cess­ful. For the Parisians, Donizetti was a one-opera won­der until Lucia di Lam­mer­moor was given by the Théâtre-Italien on Decem­ber 12, 1837, two years after its pre­mière in Naples. “The enthu­si­asm it evoked bor­dered on hys­te­ria,” writes Donizetti scholar William Ash­brook. “After Lucia, the road to Paris lay open to Donizetti.”

The com­poser arrived with a con­tract for the Opéra in his pocket. He expected his first French opera would be Les Mar­tyrs, a four-act, grand opera ver­sion of his opera Poli­uto, but com­pli­ca­tions soon arose (com­pli­ca­tions always seemed to arise at the Opéra). Dur­ing the 18 months that dragged on before Les Mar­tyrs was finally given, Donizetti made a few changes in Roberto Dev­ereux before it was given at the Théâtre-Italien, where it was soon eclipsed by the frenzy that greeted his L’Elisir d’Amore. He began a sec­ond grand opera, Le duc d’Albe, and then – almost par­en­thet­i­cally – men­tioned in a let­ter to a friend, that while he was get­ting ready to rehearse Les Mar­tyrs, “I have writ­ten, orches­trated, and deliv­ered a lit­tle opera for the Opéra-Comique which will be given in a month or 40 days.”   It was, of course, Le Fille du Rég­i­ment.

A mys­tery sur­rounds the source of the libretto by Jules-Henri Ver­noy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard. Did they come up with the plot on their own, or was it taken from an uniden­ti­fied source? No one seems to know, but the two men put together a libretto that was won­der­fully attuned to the early Roman­ti­cism much in vogue at the time. It took place in a pas­toral set­ting, involved hid­den iden­ti­ties, young love that seems impos­si­ble for most of the opera, had a quasi-military atmos­phere and, of course, gen­er­ous dashes of humor, plus occa­sions for gen­uine sen­ti­ment. Sit­u­a­tions are com­i­cally arti­fi­cial (Marie is to marry into a fam­ily – the Krak­en­tor­pes – who are described as being nobil­ity for 75 gen­er­a­tions), but the emo­tions are genuine.

Joan Suther­land, a Marie that sparkled and touched the heart.

Writ­ing in a style that was unmis­tak­ably Gal­lic, Donizetti seized on these con­trast­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for humor and pathos and lav­ished on them not only his genius for cre­at­ing melodies that are utterly per­fect for an indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter to sing at a spe­cific time in the story, but also his (largely unrec­og­nized) skill at orches­tra­tion. For instance, when Marie bids farewell to the reg­i­ment at the end of Act I, her aria “Il faut par­tir” is sad, but not mawk­ish; Donizetti hits exactly the right nuance of emo­tion, that is also car­ried out by using the plain­tive sound of the Eng­lish horn to intro­duce the melody and then in a sub­tle obbligato.

Donizetti knew how to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for vocal dis­play that also con­vey infor­ma­tion about a char­ac­ter at a par­tic­u­lar point in the drama. Tonio’s aria “Pour mon âme” with its repeated high Cs (eight of them in the score, usu­ally nine in a per­for­mance since tenors can’t resist adding one to the end­ing) is not gra­tu­itous note spin­ning. It’s the per­fect expres­sion of Tonio’s over the top excite­ment at being the newest mem­ber of the reg­i­ment and, there­fore, close to his beloved Marie.

But per­haps the pièce de résis­tance of the score is Marie’s les­son scene. Les­son scenes were noth­ing new, (Rossini’s The Bar­ber of Seville has a famous one). But Donizetti not only wrote the oblig­a­tory vocal acro­bat­ics for his prima donna. He also used it to con­trast her new, rather con­stricted life in polite soci­ety (her “aunt,” the Mar­quise of Berken­field teach­ing her an insipid song of the type every prop­erly raised girl was expected to know) with her long­ing for the free­dom she had enjoyed as a daugh­ter of the reg­i­ment, (Sergeant Sulpice taunt­ing her with a song they used to sing). When Marie finally explodes in frus­tra­tion her trills, runs, and arse­nal of vocal fire­works are as gen­uinely funny as they are dazzling.

Despite Donizetti’s superb score, the first per­for­mance, at the Opéra-Comique on Feb­ru­ary 11,1840, was some­thing of a fiasco, thanks to the composer’s ene­mies who were angry about his enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity. Hec­tor Berlioz, bet­ter known at the time as a critic than as a com­poser, vented his frus­tra­tion a few days later in the Jour­nal des débats: “Two major scores for the Opéra, Les mar­tyrs and Le duc d’Albe, two oth­ers at the Renais­sance Lucie de Lam­mer­moor  [the French ver­sion of Lucia] and L’ange de Nisida, two at the Opéra-Comique, Le Fille du rég­i­ment and another whose title is still unknown, and yet another for the Théâtre-Italien, will have been writ­ten or tran­scribed in one year by the same com­poser! M. Donizetti seems to treat us like a con­quered coun­try; it is a ver­i­ta­ble inva­sion. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only the opera houses of M. Donizetti.”

Berlioz also accused Donizetti of incor­po­rat­ing into Fille music orig­i­nally writ­ten by Adam for Le chalet, an untrue asser­tion Donizetti imme­di­ately denied in a let­ter to the edi­tor. Pri­vately Donizetti wrote to a friend: “Have you read the Débates? Berlioz? Poor man…he wrote an opera, it was whis­tled at, he is writ­ing sym­phonies and they are whis­tled at…everyone is laugh­ing and whistling. I alone feel com­pas­sion for him…he is right…he had to avenge himself.”

Of course it was Donizetti who had the last word. Fille soon found its ador­ing audi­ence, all around the world. By 1914 it had been given 1,000 times in its orig­i­nal home, the Opéra-Comique. A few months after the work’s pre­mière, Donizetti pre­pared an Ital­ian opera buffo ver­sion of the work for Milan, sub­sti­tut­ing recita­tives for the French dia­logue, cut­ting sev­eral num­bers (includ­ing Tonio’s famous aria with the repeated high C’s), and adding some new music. La figlia del reg­g­i­mento misses much of the élan and charm that make its French ver­sion so irre­sistible, and has never been as popular.

Mar­cella Sembrich

The first U.S. per­for­mance of Fille du Rég­i­ment was in New Orleans  (in French) in 1843. Through­out the 19th cen­tury it was a favorite vehi­cle for prima don­nas and heard in Eng­lish, Ger­man, and Ital­ian in addi­tion to its orig­i­nal French, by U.S. audi­ences. The first Met pro­duc­tion was in 1901. It starred the incom­pa­ra­ble, and enor­mously pop­u­lar, Mar­cella Sem­brich, whose Marie left crit­ics fum­bling for new ways to praise both her singing and act­ing. The opera was given in French and paired with Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana, though dur­ing its first two sea­sons it was more often paired with Pagli­acci.

Fille was allowed to stand on its own when the Met gave it a new pro­duc­tion in 1917, in Ital­ian, with the Ger­man soprano Frieda Hempel who sang it for the next two sea­sons. (Hempel had been New York’s first Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier four years before, a pair­ing of roles that would be quite unlikely today.) Hempel inter­po­lated dif­fer­ent num­bers in the les­son scene, rang­ing from Proch’s “Deh torna mio bene” to Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burn­ing.”  (At the per­for­mance of Novem­ber 14, 1918 she sang both, and the audi­ence demanded, and got, an encore of the pop­u­lar song.)

Lily Pons, an enchant­ing Marie

The con­duc­tor for this pro­duc­tion was Gen­naro Papi, who also led the opera when it returned in Decem­ber 1940, which per­haps helps explain why the new pro­duc­tion was a hybrid, basi­cally the Ital­ian ver­sion but sung in French.  It starred the pop­u­lar chic French soprano Lily Pons whose inter­po­la­tions toped even her predecessor’s. After singing the les­son scene as Donizetti wrote it, Pons added an aria from act one of the French ver­sion of Lucia com­plete with flute cadenza (which Donizetti had orig­i­nally writ­ten for Ros­monda d’Inghilterra) in place of the sec­ond verse of “Salut à la France.” But her most mem­o­rable addi­tion reflected world con­di­tions at the time. Though the U.S. was not yet at war, Paris was occu­pied, and at the end of Fille, the prin­ci­ples and cho­rus sang sev­eral phrases of La Mar­seil­laise as Pons waved the French flag aloft – to the applause and cheers of the audience.

It was not until Feb­ru­ary 1972 that Met audi­ences seem to have encoun­tered Donizetti’s opera as he wrote it – com­plete, in French, and with­out addi­tions. The his­toric pro­duc­tion stared Joan Suther­land, Luciano Pavarotti, Fer­nando Corena, Regina Resnik and the great Ljuba Welitsch in the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krak­en­torp. Richard Bonynge conducted.

Young Pavarotti as Tonio

It is pos­si­ble that Pavarotti was the first tenor to sing Tonio’s “high C” aria, “Pour mon âme,” at the Met. Cer­tainly reviews of the ear­lier tenors make no men­tion of the aria, and often treat Thomas Sali­gnac (1902 – 03) and Fre­nando Carpi (1917 – 18) as also-rans, a dis­tant third in impor­tance after the soprano and the bari­tone singing Sergeant Sulpice (Charles Gilbert in 1902-03; Anto­nio Scotti in 1917 – 18; Sal­va­tore Baccaloni in the 1940s), lead­ing one to think that even when the French ver­sion was given, the aria must have been cut. In the 1940s Raoul Jobin’s Tonio was praised, though the role was trun­cated. (Tenors after Pavarotti, like Alfredo Kraus, Frank Lopardo and San­ford Olsen have all sung the aria at the Met.)

Since the Sutherland-Pavarotti Fille, the opera has been seen as a joint vehi­cle, for both soprano and tenor, and this new pro­duc­tion by Lau­rent Pelly is no excep­tion. It reunites two super­stars, Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flo­rez, whose appear­ances in it in Europe have thrilled audi­ences, and reaped ecsta­tic reviews. No won­der tick­ets for every per­for­mance of the Met’s lat­est Fille du Rég­i­ment were sold out moths before it opened.

A slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of these pro­gram notes appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Nay 2008


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