Donizetti’s “La fille du régiment” was a work commonly performed during its first century. That was back when French was the international language and the work embodied the lyricism, charm and virtuosity of Italian bel canto opera decked out in idealized French nationalism.
French-born American coloratura Lily Pons infamously donned the French flag when she sang the Regiment Song as an encore at the Met in 1940 as a show of solidarity to the fall of France to Hitler. After a period of neglect, Joan Sutherland revived the opera in the 1960s and seventies and it was a young Luciano Pavarotti’s ability to effortlessly traverse the tenor-killing high Cs alongside of her that restored the opera’s popularity and cemented the Pavarotti legend. (It was Sutherland who starred in Lyric Opera’s only company performances fifty years ago but Alfredo Kraus was the tenor.)
For this rare revival, Lyric has dug up the bleak and gray Laurent Pelly production that uses maps for scenery and sets the work in World War I. The dialogue has been rewritten and gags that fall flat and woefully distract from the music are relentless, much more so as later creative teams have added their two cents.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who specializes in bel canto roles and has become a Lyric regular, plays Tonio, while soprano Lisette Oropesa makes her long-overdue Lyric debut as Marie. Both were tossing off the pyrotechnics of their roles impressively on opening night, but there was little connection between the two dramatically, which is central to the plot of the couple being hopelessly in love, despite being on opposite sides of a war and the class structure. There was little attempt to bring out characterizations nor the emotions that the music calls for. Not helping matters was Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci, making her Lyric debut, who kept the score weighted down.
While singing the most central arias, Marie is called upon to roll around on the floor or do laundry or iron. The characters around her—even the soldiers of the Regiment—are reacting in distracting ways.
When Tonio sings the famous “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête” with its eight high Cs, he’s acting like he’s on “The Voice.” Brownlee not only added the customary ninth high C, but continued on to repeat the entire aria as a rare and diversionary Lyric Opera encore.
“Daughter of the Regiment” at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker, lyricopera.org. Through November 25.