La Fille du Régiment: Vive la France, vive Les Hauts C!!!; Call Me Madam

Fille du Régiment, photo @ Marty Sohl

Donizetti's delightful comedy La Fille du Régiment made a much-welcome return to the Met last night. This was one of those evenings that was such a delightful performance overall that the flaws hardly mattered. The Met has assembled a wonderful cast for this revival, and Laurent Pelly's ubiquitous production remains as fresh and funny as ever. My first ever Fille was unforgettable -- Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez in the lead roles. I remember the pandemonium during that performance -- the screaming, shouting, and stomping. If this performance didn't quite have the same raucous energy it was still one that made you leave the theater grinning from ear to ear.

Pretty Yende, photo @ Marty Sohl
Pretty Yende as Marie, the "fille du régiment" gave an overall pleasing performance. This role allowed Yende to show off her strengths -- her amazing upper register (she can go up to an F in alt without sounding shrill), her skill at staccato ornamentation, the fact that she unlike many singers today has a real trill, as well as the fact that she is very pretty to look at. She is not a natural comedienne but Laurent Pelly's production has enough built-in schtick that she got laughs even if she doesn't have the same zany energy of Natalie Dessay (the Marie I first saw in this production). She can iron shirts well and in this Pelly production if you can iron shirts well the audience is already chuckling.

A couple things prevent Yende from being truly great as Marie and they're the same things that held back her other performances. One is her rhythmic slackness. She's one of those singers who always sings slightly behind the beat. This is detrimental to her characterization of Marie. In the second act Marie having been "rescued" from the army by her rich aunt has a singing lesson aria. But in the aria she keeps breaking out into the army's Rataplan in favor of her aunt's parlor song. That Rataplan is supposed to sound energetic and accelerate to a thrilling finale. But with Yende's languorous way of singing you hardly felt the urgency. The other is that Yende liberally sprinkles interpolated high notes into the score (she ended the first act duet "Depuis le instant ou" with a E flat, first act finale with a high D, and the finale of an opera with an E-flat, and those are just the ones I remember) but her middle register is not as strong or resonant, and in those moments her pitch can sag. So in the simpler songs of the opera like Marie's sad act one aria "Il faut partir" her voice drifted in and out of audibility and her pitch was approximate.

Camarena as Tonio, photo @ Marty Sohl
Javier Camarena's voice fits Tonio almost like a glove. This role lies in his sweet spot -- his free and ringing upper register. Of course he brought down the house with those 9 high C's in "Ah mes amis" and of course he encored it with his 18th high C being the most long-held. He also ended the first act finale with a D in alt. Camarena's voice is a lyric tenor instead of the tenore di grazias that often sing Tonio and his high notes have an unusually full-bodied, brilliant sound. His simple, happy stage presence suited the role of Tonio, who joins the army for the woman he loves. Camarena's middle voice is not as free as his upper register. In "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" he capped the aria with a spectacular high C sharp (surprise!) but there were a few notes in the middle that had a hairline crack. Most singers crack on high notes. It's rarer to hear a crack in notes that are usually in the singer's core voice.

But still, for the sheer excitement his voice can bring when it enters the stratosphere, Camarena is amazing. The Met uploaded his encore of "Ah mes amis" to their website immediately:

Blythe as the Marquise, photo @ Marty Sohl
This production had some luxury casting. Stephanie Blythe as The Marquise of Berkenfield continued her scene-stealing ways and was just a joy to watch. She played the Marquise as one of those aristocratic Southern belles who are always on the verge of grabbing their smelling salts. In every scene she was in she was always doing something to pull the audience's eyes towards her -- just the way she worked her handkerchief was hilarious. Blythe is a surprisingly physical actress -- when the libretto called for her to "jump up and down in joy" she actually jumped up and down in glee like a little girl. Her contralto is one of the world's wonders -- so rich, so surprisingly flexible (in the singing lesson scene she executed a long-held trill), so easy on the ears. She's a treasure and I hope she continues to sing comedic roles forever -- she's one of the few opera singers who is laugh out loud funny.

Veteran Alessandro Corbelli (Sulpice) is an opera treasure: a real Italian opera buffa expert who knows how to garner laughs not just with stage business but with musical timing. He is really wonderful and without his zany humor the evening would have been so much less charming. Watch the expression he makes at 0:26 of this video:

Kathleen Turner in the speaking role of Duchess of Krakenthorp garnered some chuckles for her deliberately awkward and labored French pronunciation but for a role that's supposed to really get the audience laughing she was surprisingly low-key. At times she had trouble projecting the dialogue, although the trademark husky voice is still there. I also got the feeling that many in the audience didn't even know who she was? I think this role works better if you have someone who can also do some brief singing, as the late great Montserrat Caballé did in this delightful 2007 performance from Vienna:

Conductor Enrique Mazzola was an accommodating conductor who followed Yende and Camarena, instead of pushing them to shake off their rhythmic slackness, and as a result certain sections like the Rataplan or the choral work for the "regiment" didn't have the militaristic speed and aggression that it needed. It also meant that the opera ran way over its projected running time -- Met website says 2 hours 35 minutes but the evening ran to almost three hours.

But quibbles aside this one of the best things the Met has put on this season. The eternal charm of Donizetti's music combined with an excellent cast makes this a must-see, either in the theater or live in HD on March 2.

And now, just because I can:
Florez's "Ah mes amis" in the performance I attended all those years ago:

And the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti:

Cusack and company, photo @ Stephanie Berger
ETA: On Friday night I went to see the New York City Center Encores! presentation of Call Me Madam. This 1950 Irving Berlin musical was so tailored for the brassy, ballsy, belting talents of Ethel Merman that it became one of the rare stage hits she got to reprise on film. The film adaptation of Call Me Madam is absolutely terrific -- an old-style Hollywood musical in the best sense. Merman is of course amazing, but the film also has the incredible dancing talents of Donald O'Connor.

City Center's Encores! production has Carmen Cusack as Washington socialite-turned-Lichtenberg-ambassador Sally Adams. Cusack is a lovely performer but miscast. She simply doesn't have the larger-than-life energy of Merman, nor does she have the power-belting voice. Also, she's too elegant. One of the best scenes of the film is Ethel Merman preparing to meet Lichtenberg's royal family. As she preps she holds her huge train between her legs. Cusack would have glided through the doors like a Hollywood actress walking the red carpet. Ben Davis as Cosmo Constantine was stiff and awkward and without the cosmopolitan charm of George Sanders.

Worsham, Cusack, and Gotay
The supporting cast was better. Jason Gotay of course cannot be compared to Donald O'Connor but he is charming as the lovestruck Kenneth. Lauren Worsham was delightful as Princess Marie (played much more for laughs than in the movie), and Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane have a brief hilarious walk-on. Michael Benjamin Washington was very funny as the officious Pemberton Maxwell.

The book has not aged well. Today the jokes seem dated and stale. This sort of mild, gentle, G-rated political satire tends to age poorly (there are too many jokes about Margaret Truman's singing getting Susan Kane-like reviews).

So why go see this Encores! presentation? In a word, Irving Berlin's amazing score. His music makes you want to dance in your seat. "It's a Lovely Day" is one of the best conditional love songs composed for the musical theater while "You're Just in Love" is one of the best Irving Berlin songs period. But there's not a single bad song in the entire musical. All the songs are earworms, from "Something to Dance About" to "They Like Ike" to "The Ocarina." And while you can hear these songs in the film and on recording, there is nothing like hearing them live and feeling the gentle lilt of these melodies wash over the audience. So go catch this before the weekend performances are over to hear Berlin's timeless music, chuckle at the dated jokes, and revel in the nostalgia of a political satire where one of the main jokes is whether a Republican could ever be elected president.


  1. I remember a JDF interview shortly before he sang Tonio at the Met where he said if a singer has the note he didn't think Ah mes amis was all that difficult. He thought Pour me rapprocher was more difficult. I guess JC would agree.

    1. I heard Lawrence Brownlee say the same thing. He said that this aria for him was much easier than, say, Il Mio Tesoro, which has most tenors gasping for air by the end.

    2. I always wondered why Mozart thought the tenor could go 5 minutes without breathing. BTW, the Met has no problem doing this French talk fest but still does Carmen with the awful recits--even when they have two native French speakers in the leading roles.

  2. Thanks for the great review. I'm looking forward to seeing the HD Fille here in Boston. I also saw the Dessay & Florez performance. They were both great and Dessay was in her prime. I didn't like her that much in other operas. I have never heard Camarena except recorded, and can't wait to see him. His sound is more similar to Pavarotti, whom I adore, than to the other more leggero tenor types like JDF and Brownlee.

    1. You are right that Camarena's voice has a fuller-bodied sound than the leggero types. This role is perfect for him and I can't wait for you to see him.

  3. I loved the performance of Fille. I absolutely loved Camarena and look forward to seeing him in ... anything, but preferably a bel canto tragedy. Yende was excellent. Her voice is gorgeous and her characterization of Marie, while not as zany as Dessay's, was delightful. I can't honestly say I noticed wavering pitch but she seemed to have some dead notes that didn't sound right. Muraro too was impressive and Blythe blew me away! She is fabulous, her every utterance was perfect, spoken or sung. Her range is remarkable. This opera was just what we need in the doldrums of February. For 3 hours you can forget what's happening in the cruel world.

    1. Yende is one of those sopranos who seems to have an easier time singing a high F than middle C. She's got a gorgeous timbre and appealing stage presence, but I think to move past the soubrette roles she will have to gain a more substantial middle.

      Blythe is wonderful in comedy. For such a large woman she's often the most physically active performer onstage. She's always doing something to draw the eyes towards her. A real treasure. I hope she doesn't retire from opera soon but if she does I have no doubt she can do Broadway. She has the timing, the humor, the goofiness for musical comedy.


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