In 2008, I watched Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du Régiment, starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, as a Metropolitan Opera TV broadcast... so why did I go see it when it came to the San Francisco Opera last week? First, because Flórez came with the production to San Francisco, and I couldn't pass up the chance to hear him live. And second, because I was curious how soprano Diana Damrau would fare in a staging that had been built around Natalie Dessay's talents and persona. So much of Pelly's production relied on the fact that Dessay is kooky and athletic and a petite gamine Frenchwoman. What would it be like with Damrau--who sings many of the same roles as Dessay and is known as a good actress, but looks stereotypically German and might bring a different energy to the role?
As it turns out, Dessay and Damrau seem to approach the role of Marie, "the daughter of the regiment," from opposite directions. Dessay starts out as a bundle of manic energy, singing forcefully and doing physical comedy tricks; and just when you think that's all there is to her, she dials it back and breaks your heart. Damrau executes the same gestures and choreography as Dessay, but in a much more controlled ("regimented"?) way. Her Marie is tomboyish, but never kooky. Her singing is more controlled too--so maybe it is closer to ideal bel canto style, and it's proof of her skill that she can sing softly during elaborate coloratura passages. All the same, there were times when Damrau was almost too quiet--and it's not that she has a tiny voice, because there were moments when she let it out and easily filled the auditorium. And those were the moments that you tended to notice and want more of.
There is a lot of spoken dialogue in Fille du Régiment, where Dessay probably has the advantage, being a native French speaker. Damrau's pronunciation wasn't bad, but she lacked Dessay's comic timing (e.g. the scene where Marie reads a letter aloud, sounding the words out because she hasn't had any formal schooling). I could also tell that Damrau and Flórez faked the kiss after their love duet--but, as I learned from the New Yorker profile of Dessay last spring, she insisted that Flórez had to really kiss her, or it wouldn't look believable.
Overall, I think that this production still works best as The Natalie Dessay Show--but in a more traditional production of Fille du Régiment, one that treated its heroine as a more conventional ingénue, I might prefer to see Damrau. This was Damrau's first attempt at the role of Marie, but I do hope it isn't her last!
Juan Diego Flórez is the real deal, and I will count myself lucky to have heard him perform the role of Tonio in person. No, we couldn't get him to encore "Pour mon âme," but his joyful rendition of it is something to treasure. (He also has perfected his French pronunciation: when I watched the telecast it annoyed me that he sang "J'y sa flamme" instead of "J'ai sa flamme," but he didn't do that last week!) And we gave Flórez another thunderous ovation, welcoming him into our hearts, after his tender Act II aria. He sings with brilliant musicality, looks good onstage, and makes everything seem effortless. I also like that he was unafraid to give Tonio an endearingly dorky quality, especially in his first scenes. I can't imagine opera divos of the past, like Pavarotti or Domingo, allowing themselves to act so goofy.
As for the supporting cast, Meredith Arwady was delightful in the role of the Marquise de Berkenfield--acting like Margaret Dumont and singing with a huge contralto voice. I do not think that Bruno Praticò was an ideal choice to play Sergeant Sulpice, however: Sulpice does not have a lot of difficult singing, but he does have a lot of French dialogue, and Praticò's thick Italian accent rendered him almost incomprehensible when speaking French. It seems like it wouldn't be too hard to find a bass-baritone who sang just as well but could handle the dialogue better.
Photos from San Francisco Opera. Top: Marie saves Tonio from certain death. Bottom: Marie, Tonio, and Sulpice reunited.