Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Marie Gets Her Man and Her Gun" (on Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti 's La fille du Régiment)


marie gets her man and her gun
by Douglas Messerli

J. F. A. Bayard and J. H. Venoy de Saint-Georges (libretto), Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti (composer) La fille du Régiment / the production Howard Fox and I saw of the Met HD Live presentation was on Saturday, March 2, 2019

Even the often traditionalist Metropolitan Opera—although far less conservative over the past many years under the guidance of Peter Gelb—recognizes when it has an innovative comic hit, as they do in this year’s production of La fille du Régiment, directed by the wonderous “child-like” Laurent Pelly (who also did the costumes) and conducted by the performer-behind-the-baton Enrique Mazzola. The Met itself celebrated the near endless ovations at opera’s end with a convention-like confetti-spray of paper placards each saying “bravo” and “brava.”
 
      And then there was the absolutely glorious singing of the two leads, South Africa’s Pretty Yende (as Marie) and Javier Camarena (as Tonio), who beautifully belts out 9 high C’s in his famous aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!" The Met has again loosened up its previous ban on
encores, even encouraging the standing-up applause, while Camarena, tears flowing from his eyes in appreciation, goes through those high C’s all over again, making it almost impossible for audience to have clear eyes. Asked in an intermission discussion how he is able to achieve that, the rather modest Camarena simply explained that when you’re rehearsing such a role you sing those high C’s far more often, until your voice becomes raw.
                                    
    Perhaps the great Peruvian-born singer Juan Diego Flórez (who Howard saw in another production of this opera) is just as talented, but there is something about the slightly chubby Camarena’s excited possibility of marrying this obviously black woman that says so much about great theater’s ability to transform our visions. These two characters prove the term, “the willing suspension of disbelief,” as both rather handsome individuals turn themselves through their singing into the beauteous creatures represented in the libretto of J. F. A. Bayard and J. H. Venoy de Saint-Georges.
     Yende might have been equally applauded for her “Il faut parir, mes bons compagnons d’armes” and, in Act II, her lovely lament of having to leave all she has loved behind.
      As if the joys of these two lovers were not enough, we have before us the always beloved Stephanie Blythe as the slightly selfish and oafish Marquise of Berkenfield (more of a speaking role than a singing one, which, given Blythe’s soaring voice, is a bit disappointing), Maurizio Muraro (as Sulpice)—who it was announced was suffering from a cold the day we saw the H.D. live-video transmission, but who seemed still to carry his role to near-perfection—and then, as if allowing us a spicy topping, presenting actress Kathleen Turner in the entirely-speaking role of the proud Duchess of Krakenthorp, declaring her frustrations alternately in rather American accented French and English.
     The very athletically-conceived first act, and the mockingly artificiality of Pelly’s vision of Act II with the servant’s molding themselves to the walls and furniture they are cleaning, made for great fun. And then, in Act 1 there was Yende’s sudden surprise, when, upon perceiving her confused love for Tonio, she mutters unintelligible words—in this case spoken entirely in the language of the Zulus, including the languages noted clicks. This production seemed to contain nearly everything one needed to become a kind of classic vision of the Donizetti opera.
      Yes, some of this is simply silly and, particularly in Act II, a bit over-the-top. But it’s fun always. This is the kind of opera to which anyone might bring their children or grand-children—although on the rainy day we saw it, the movie-theater audience was made-up, once more, of grey-white-purple haired women and their husbands, many of whom came armed with their walkers. We, alas, are not far from those descriptions. Although I know the Met cameras must seek them out in their before curtain coverage, there seems to be many more younger people attending the New York opera house itself. Opera desperately needs those young people!
      And then there is this strange tale about a young abandoned child adopted, evidently without any abuse, by an entire military unit of lusty young men. She grows up virtually as an indentured servant, endlessly washing and cleaning their underwear and cooking their meals. Marie might as easily be described as a kind of slave, a Cinderella who is never invited to the ball.  
      Yet being the “daughter” of an entire military unit, she is also allowed a great deal of freedom, unforced to play the proper young woman, even encouraged to be an independent-thinking tom-boy, who openly grumbles and rebels about anything she doesn’t like. If she cheerily accepts her endless washing, ironing, and potato-peeling duties, she perceives herself also as a kind of Joan of Arc, a military woman working alongside of these men to help France, singing “Salut à la France” to rile up their patriotic fervor that might see them on to war with the terrified peasants of Tyrolean Italy.
     She is a wild thing, ready at any moment to carry a gun—a kind of Annie Oakley of the day shocked suddenly into love by the equally radical Tonio, a milder Wild Bill Hitchcock who, as a Tyrolean, dares not only to enter enemy territory in search of his love, but to join up with them, later becoming a kind of French hero.
      Indeed, once the local Tyrolean Marquise, really a kind of wealthy bourgeoise, perceives Marie as being the long-lost daughter of her sister and dresses her up in a new gown while attempting to teach the girl proper French and Italian melodies and manners, Yende really does remind one a bit of Doris Day’s Oakley, all dressed up to entice her “Wild Bill” Tony. You might almost expect them to break into a chorus of “I Can Do Anything Better Than You.” One might even describe the 9 high C’s of Tonio in Act I as a kind of “I can outdo you” in reaction to Marie’s infectious singing.
      In fact, Marie’s Tonio rides in to save her, this time in a absurdly anachronistic machine-gun tank to rescue her from the dead society (which almost reminded of the audience I describe above) into which she is being forced to marry.
      We know this gutsy young girl will never be able to survive as the wife of the conveniently absent son (like Tonio, a tenor playing at the Metropolitan) of the Duchess of Krakenthorp; yet when the Marquise suddenly admits to Sulpice that she, in fact, is the mother of Marie, the girl, unwilling, agrees to sign the marriage certificate.
      Suddenly, the memory of her youthful sexual follies almost rejuvenates the Marquise, as she declares that Marie should marry the man her daughter loves instead of marrying into the dead world of her own memories of her beloved Robert.
      It is somewhat amazingly, accordingly, that a 17th century Opéra comique might speak so strongly about feminist aspirations, military incompetence, and patriarchal and matriarchal demands that speak to our own time. In a far more comic manner, this strong woman reminds us of more tragic women of opera such as Brünhilde, Carmen, Salome, Electra, Princess Turandot, and so very many others who attempted, often successfully but more often forced into death, to rebel against patriarchal domination. Marie gets her man and her gun; she can now keep her wild identity while swooning into the arms of her soldier lover.

Los Angeles, March 5, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2019).

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