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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