Maybe it's Diana Damrau's fault.
Five years ago, in June, 2004, I attended a performance of Arabella at Covent Garden. I had seen the opera once before, with Janice Watson, Franz Grundhaber, and Tracy Dahl as the annoying Fiakermili. Donald Runnicles probably conducted; I cannot for the life of me remember who sang Zdenka or Matteo. I intensely disliked it despite some lovely music.
So why did I buy a ticket to the London performance? Get this cast and conductor: Mattila, Bonney, Hampson, Very, Damrau/Dohnanyi. They were near perfect, and I became a fan. I still remember the beautiful clarity and balance of the orchestra, the thrust of Mattila's voice, echoed on a smaller scale by Bonney's, Hampson's humanity, the rightness of the production and direction.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm a bel-canto skeptic. Sure, I'd be happy to take in a well-cast Norma or Lucia once in a while, and I'd run to get tickets to William Tell. But I've walked out on La Favorite and Elisir and avoid Rossini comedies like the plague.
That means that I missed the hotshot tenor Juan Diego Florez's first two appearances in San Francisco, which were in Barber of Seville and Cenerentola. So when the much-touted and well-traveled Laurent Pelly production of La Fille du Regiment came around, with Florez in the tenor lead and Damrau as Marie, I gulped and dragged myself to the balcony standing room area of the War Memorial Opera House, concerned about both the music and the 80-minute first act.
I'm going to have to eat my words about Donizetti: I liked the production a great deal and loved the music. You've probably heard "Pour mon ame,"* the famous tenor cavatina with the nine (9) high Cs, and while it's certainly the opera's biggest show-stopper, it's just one of the many beautiful, imaginative, and delightful arias and ensembles.
See, the focus of the publicity materials on the tenor's vocal gymnastics obscures a few things. The soprano lead is not only three times the length of the tenor role, it has a much wider emotional range, from the very extroverted and athletic to the wistful. And those ensembles! There are several excellent choral pieces and some great trios; the music is more harmonically adventurous than what I remember of the other Donizetti operas I've seen.
The singing was mostly terrific. I loved both Damrau and Florez. She has the range and flexibility for the role, and a lovely voice, bigger than I remembered from Arabella, though not as luscious as Ruth Ann Swenson's. She's an excellent singer and was as good in the slow music as the fast. Florez sounds much warmer and more human in the hall than on record, where he sounds brilliant to the point of hardness. The 9 high Cs? Yep, they were great, but for me the most impressive thing about the aria is that he is so charming and sings with such a good line. Not to mention, the Cs were easy and it sounded as though he had headroom and could have gone to a D or even higher.
The production, set in or around WWI, is a little on the manic side, especially for Marie, who has to haul around laundry and tubs of potatoes, jump all over the stage, sing while being carried off stage, etc., etc. I can't imagine Joan Sutherland putting herself through these particular paces, though Sills and possibly Swenson could have. Some of the schtick, esp. for the Duchess of Krackenthorp, is broad and a little dumb, but the role and the opera are like that. It's not exactly subtle, and of course the plot is about as thin and silly as opera plots get.** The rushing around didn't feel overdone. My colleague Jerry said he thought it was staged like a Broadway show. I think he's right, and I think it worked quite well. There IS dialog, of course.
Meredeith Arwady, heard here in Il Trittico as the Mother Superior and Zita, was back, as the Marquise of Berkenfeld. She sounds like a young Podles, though I find the width of her vibrato worrying. She's funny and has lots of presence. I remember her as an awkward and seemingly terrified Merola fellow who looked out of place on stage, so her current authoritative performances give me great pleasure. I can't explain the schtick very well, but at one point she sings about half a verse of "Mon coer s'ouvre a ta voix" and it was really good! Sheila Nadler, as the Duchess, must be in her mid-60s, and it sounds as though she can still sing, in the three lines of music she had.
Bruno Pratico, as Sulpice, is okay (in tune, funny) but sounds worn and vocally unattractive.
This production also benefits from really superb conducting by Andriy Yurkevych. He has a great feel for the ebb and flow of Italian music, and did NOT conducting everything at a firm moderato, which is one of my standard complaints about bel canto performances. He conducted as though he took the music seriously - good for him! Which reminds me that the conductor of Swenson's Lucia - which I think of as Swenson's Lucia with Vargas's Edgardo - was Richard Bonnyng, who was at best a competent bore.
So, do I blame Damrau, or not? Two operas I had every reason to think I'd hate, two great performances that made me a fan.
*If you've been under a rock for the last couple of years, here are Luciano Pavarotti in 1972 and Juan Diego Florez in the Pelly production, filmed at Covent Garden and available commercially. Florez sounds even better live, with a warmer sound that's bigger than you might think from the voice's lightness. And what I heard was better than Pav in '72. Really.
** A regiment of French soldiers inherits an infant and raises her collectively as their daughter. Some years later, she's in love with a young Swiss hayseed. The soldiers will only allow her to marry a member of the regiment, so he joins up, just as she discovers she is the neice - actually the daughter - of a Marquise. The Marquise thinks a young hayseed/soldier isn't exactly good enough for her either. This is a comic opera, so they wind up engaged instead of dead.