Daughter Of The Regiment Dessay

Gaetano Donizetti wrote 65 operas in less than 30 years. At one point, one of every four operas performed in Italy was his. Getty Images hide caption

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BACKGROUND:La fille du regimentThe Daughter of the Regiment — was originally written in French, for a premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris in 1840. Not long after that, an Italian version appeared and the opera became even more popular. In London, in 1847, it was performed in English, and its brilliant coloratura made it a favorite with superstar soprano Jenny Lind, who sang it at the Metropolitan in New York.

As with many French operas designated as opera comique, this one includes quite a bit of spoken dialogue. In the Vienna State Opera's production, much of the dialogue was rewritten specifically to reflect the time and place of the performance — and to create a vehicle for Montserrat Caballe's appearance as the Duchess of Crackentorp. For World of Opera, we've left out some of the lengthier spoken passages, while others remain intact.

Act 1: The story takes place in the early 1800s, in the mountains of the Swiss Tyrol. Villagers are gathered around as if on the lookout. They can hear a battle in the distance, and the women pray for a French victory. They're confident because the 21st Regiment of Grenadiers has joined the fight, and they are unbeatable. One of the grenadiers, Sergeant Sulpice, comes on the scene accompanied by an attractive young woman in a military uniform. Her name is Marie, and the grenadiers found her alone on a battlefield when she was just a little girl. The soldiers took her in, protected and raised her, and now love her as their own daughter.

Recently, though, Marie has been glum. Sulpice wonders whether she's brooding over a certain young man she's been seeing. Marie tells him that this young man saved her life — preventing her from falling off a cliff — and there's an attraction between them. That's all well and good, but the regiment has decreed that only a grenadier is worthy of their Marie.

Suddenly there's a commotion. Soldiers have captured a man named Tonio, saying he's been hanging around the camp and is surely a spy. Naturally, he turns out to be the man who rescued Marie from certain death. She pleads his case to the grenadiers, and they say he can go free — so long as he agrees to join the regiment. That's fine with Tonio — he'll do anything that will allow him to be near Marie. When he says he also wants to marry Marie, the soldiers are reluctant. But he wins them over with his sincerity, and Tonio celebrates with the famous number Pour mon ame.

A local Marquise then spoils the fun. She's the Marquise of Birkenfeld, and says she's related to Captain Robert — a former member of the regiment. This, she says, also makes her Marie's aunt. The Marquise has decided that it's unseemly for her own niece to be living with a regiment of soldiers. She declares that, from now on, Marie must live with her, in her grand chateau. It looks like Tonio has become a soldier for nothing. Marie sings a sad farewell to the soldiers, and to Tonio, and heads off to the chateau.

Act 2: At the Chateau de Birkenfeld, the Marquise is educating Marie in "ladylike" pastimes — teaching her to dance the minuet, and to sing more sophisticated music than the soldier songs she learned as a child. But Marie's heart isn't in it. Sulpice has also been staying at the chateau, reluctantly helping with Marie's new "upbringing." When the Marquise dozes, Marie and Sulpice give up on the fancy arias and minuets, and break into the rambunctious Song of the Regiment.

Their enthusiastic singing wakes up the Marquise, and their high spirits are quickly brought down when she reveals that Marie has been promised in marriage to the wealthy son of the house of Crackentorp. But they cheer up again when they hear the martial music of the grenadiers approaching in the distance. The soldiers soon arrive and Marie welcomes her old friends in the joyful scene, Pour ce contrat fatal.

The regiment marches in, led by Tonio, who has been promoted to captain. He sings an emotional Romance, pleading with the Marquise to grant him Marie's hand. The Marquise is moved, but she says it's too late — Marie's marriage has already been arranged. She'll soon be a Crackentorp.

Sulpice is prepared to make one final appeal on the couple's behalf when the Marquise reveals the truth about Marie's heritage. She confides to Sulpice that Marie is not her niece. She is actually the Marquise's daughter, born out of wedlock. Sulpice tells Marie, who caves in. She can't go against her own mother.

Guests arrive to witness the signing of the wedding contract. Marie recalls her tender memories as daughter of the regiment. The aristocrats surrounding her are scandalized. But the Marquise is so touched that she relents, and sends the astonished Crackentorps packing. The Marquise then leads Tonio to Marie and joins their hands. In a rousing ensemble finale, everyone wishes the couple well.

Comedy works best, one theory goes, when the people in it don’t know they are being funny. Another school favors a more Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) approach, in which the reasonable turns into the improbable, and the improbable into the outrageous. The Metropolitan Opera’s visually drab but industriously comic new production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” represents theory No. 1 with touches of theory No. 2.

Laurent Pelly’s production updates Napoleonic warfare in the Tyrol to the time of World War I. Pains were taken to excise every bit of fluff and gold braid, anything that might remind us of the toy-soldier productions traditional to this ever-endearing piece. Maybe the idea is to clear away anything that obstructs the view of the Met’s marvelous principals.

As a full house at the Met awaited the sporting event of the evening, Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio, the aspiring lover from the mountains, delivered his famous string of high C’s in Act I and then, repeating the whole thing, nailed them again. The crowd, as they say, went wild. Less theatrical but perhaps more difficult were the restrained, drawn-out held notes he managed so well later in the evening.

Mr. Flórez is opera’s latest, best response to a category of tenor voice that predominated in 1840 but no longer exists. Donizetti’s tenor parts — requiring a different physical technique, lighter than the sound we are used to and benefiting from what were often drastically smaller opera houses — were also tuned lower. In other words, his B flat and our B flat are not the same.

Mr. Flórez offers a splendid metaphor for something that cannot be historically reproduced. His tone is slender but athletic. It has a ring and a resonance easily heard in a space the size of which Donizetti certainly did not plan on. Mr. Flórez is fluent in the ways of rapid-fire bel canto delivery, and he delivers simpler tunes winningly.

Natalie Dessay as Marie, the heroine of the title, asked us to consider a third theory of comedy: that people are funny when they behave like machines. Ms. Dessay will not be accused of stand-and-deliver opera. At one moment she is a flailing robot, with gauges set imprudently high and threatening meltdown. Yet (and this is crucial to her success) she fades instantly and easily from machine into something human: an extraordinarily busy kind of humanity, operating at jacked-up, silent-movie tempos.

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