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.
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.
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.)
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.
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