Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: La Fille Du Regiment

Javier Camarena & Pretty Yende Lead Brilliant Production Into Major Victory

By Francisco Salazar

This review was written as a collaboration between David & Francisco Salazar for the performance on Feb. 7, 2019. 

Over the course of five months the Metropolitan Opera has shown everything from Verismo, French, Classical, Contemporary, Russian, Hungarian and German opera; there has also been a solid abundance of Verdi opera. 

What has sorely been missing are works that have become a major staple of the Met’s yearly offerings – the bel canto operas of such composers as Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti. 

It is actually a rather surprising development given that the Met has championed this repertory in the recent decade, premiering many of the neglected and rarer works; in many cases major New Years and Opening Night galas have centered on these very operas.

So, when the 2018-19 season was announced, it was a shock to see only one Bel Canto work in the repertoire. Now after five months of waiting, audiences can finally see “La Fille du Régiment” and, unsurprisingly, it is one of the Metropolitan Opera’s best shows this season (in our opinion only “La Fanciulla del West” and “Adriana Lecouvreur” can compare in terms of cohesiveness of all elements).

With a cast so inspired, vocal fireworks and an expertly directed production, audiences are in for a treat like no other this season.

18 high Cs & A Searing High D (Among Other Amazing Singing)

Javier Camarena put on a true star-turn at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night in what continues to be a stellar career. The Mexican tenor is indisputably one of the best artists on the planet, his artistry a result of breathtaking singing and strong stage presence.

Tonio is a role that suits him to perfection. Physically he embodied the awkward Tyrolean. His nervous gait was a strong contrast to the firmness expressed by the troops in the opening scenes of the opera; he just didn’t fit in and even in his interactions with Marie there was a sense of him being a complete misfit. But as the character developed, Camarena’s Tonio looked increasingly mature and firm; the boy transformed into a man. The only times we got glimpses of his more playful side were in his interactions with Yende’s Marie, which emphasized a strong connection and chemistry between the two, particularly in the Act one love duet where they toyed with one another in enjoyable fashion. At the apex of that scene, Yende ran into Camarena’s arms; he held her in the embrace for what seemed like an eternity but showed no signs of fatigue through the applause and the subsequent start of the next scene.

Vocally, he was on another level altogether. Camarena has such a firm grasp of his technique and how he places his voice that he has the confidence to take risks with the phrasing and the breath, which was especially apparent in the latter aria “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” where he expanded the legato phrases endlessly. We spotlight this aria because it often gets overlooked by the flashier “A mes amis,” and that might have definitely been the case on this night. But his singing in “Pour me rapprocher” was so intense and powerful, that it was this aria that came out as the more impactful one. There was a growing desperation with each line that made the emotional crescendo build throughout the aria, climaxing in a heart-wrenching high D natural that the tenor held onto for quite a lengthy amount of time as he knelt. “La Fille du Régiment” is a comedy through and through, but in his intense reading, the Mexican tenor took us to the pain and desperation of the most potent tragedies. In the silence that followed the climatic high D natural, you felt there were actual stakes and that Tonio really could lose Marie.

What made this moment all the more effective is how it contrasted so greatly with the rest of Camarena’s performance, the vocal embodiment of fun. His vocal sparring with Yende throughout their duet was delightful and it was great to see them match one another on ornamentations and coloratura variations in certain sections of the opera.

The famed aria “A mes amis” was pure sunshine, the tenor’s sound bright and delightful. He threw off the nine high Cs of “Pour mon âme” with relish and ease, earning himself a two-minute ovation, the likes of which have not been particularly common at the Metropolitan Opera this season (it must be noticed that this was probably the most engaged Met audience we have experienced all season). It seemed inevitable that he would encore the piece, but what was more riveting is that he did so without any noticeable fatigue from the initial effort. If anything, his second set of High Cs were even better than the first with the final blasting into the Met to even more raucous ovations. Camarena has had his fair share of iconic Met moments; this might have trumped them all, and it was only the first of seven performances.

A Warrior Through and Through

Pretty Yende continues to bloom as an artist and demonstrate why she is fulfilling her Cinderella story and in this role she exuded a charismatic energy that is contagious to audiences and that gives her performance great warmth.  

As Marie, Yende was perfectly suited to the demands of the role and relished embodying the soldier girl. When she entered, she walked with muscular swagger, attempting to imitate the rest of her troop, specifically Alessandro Corbelli’s Suplice. As she ironed a sea of white shirts, one saw the excitement in her routine. During her Act one song, she relished in the chants with her troops, but in her interactions with Tonio, she was sweet and shy as she attempted not to look at him.

Then in Act two, Yende displayed her inner brat that allowed us to revel in Marie’s childish nature, particularly when she threw herself to the floor and interpolated wild coloratura lines as she pretended to ride a horse down the stage. During “Salut à la France,” she pranced around the playing out of tune notes on the piano and then twirling about in happiness to her regiment. 

Because Laurent Pelly’s production requires so much activity and gymnastics, it is a production that can sometimes hinder the amount of coloratura a singer can give. But not Yende. She not only danced, ironed, pranced and jumped, she gave high notes like not other. She threw off gleaming High Ds that ended first Act and then gave a pair of E Flats in the second act all while lifted in midair. She even interpolated a High F at one point. But while these were impressive feats, what made Yende’s performance compelling was her expressive qualities in her more intimate music. Her duet with Camarena’s Tonio in Act one demonstrated a creamy textured middle voice that could easily move about with agility into the higher notes. In the duet she started with softer phrases, crescendoing and giving her voice a bigger sense of urgency.

During the Act one finale, “Il faut partir,” Yende sang with an intensity that brought out the nostalgic qualities in Marie as she says goodbye to her troops. She began the phrase with a piano dynamic and crescendoed to a forte as the line grew and as the intensity of the music continued. It all climaxed to a cadenza that she phrased with elegance and beauty and which felt as if she was letting out tears of sadness. 

Then in her second Act aria “Par le rang,” Yende brought out a darker and warmer timbre that emphasized that nostalgia. This was Yende’s most compelling singing, each phrase gently handled to express her sense of loss. The soprano floated many of the higher notes in this passage to glorious effect and emphasized the text with clarity and extended legato phrases, expressing a sense of holding on. In the middle section “et mes amis, ma compagne,” the voice brightened up as she sang the shorter staccati phrases with joy. When she returned to the longer lines, she sang with a more reserved tone but never lost the expression. In her cadenza Yende was more restrained, interpolating a high note that she quickly brought down to end the aria on a glorious fil di voce.

In the more virtuoso music, Yende’s standout was her lesson scene. Here, she exaggerated Marie’s lack of refinement, singing out of tune and with breathy sound; that quality of singing has never been more entertaining. Moreover, the South African soprano got to show off her lows as she imitated Stephanie Blythe’s chest voice and then got to hold out notes that added comic timing to the moment as she ran around the room. And then there were high notes that came out of nowhere, but they added to the joke of it all. Yende’s voice also bloomed as she took on a note that she started piano and then crescendoed to a forte before making a stride into her upper register and into the cabaletta portion.

Perhaps the only aspect of Yende’s performance that was questionable was her insistence on interpolating so many high notes in every musical number. It is true that many include cadenza opportunities, but the decision to use these chances to climax in a high note winds up creating a predictable pattern for the listener that loses excitement over time. And this is ultimately the effect that Yende’s high note pyrotechnics had throughout the first act. However, the most problematic of these choices came during the climax of “Salut à la France,” where the ornaments were so many that the main melody was virtually unrecognizable; it felt like a different piece altogether. High notes are thrilling and exciting to be sure, but if “The Exterminating Angel” proves anything, it’s that too many high notes can become akin to eating too much sugar – it stops being enjoyable after a while. 

Thankfully this was not enough to derail what was an incredible performance through and through. To date, this interpretation is, by far, the soprano’s best moment at the Met and it should be exciting to see what she does in this repertory in years to come. 

Solid Supporting Troops

As the Marquise de Berkenfield, Stephanie Blythe showed off her opulent voice, filling the Met house with the same imposing power audiences have come admire. But she also showed her agile pattering in Act one and exquisite trills during the lesson scene. Then she improvised a random coloratura passage at one point as Corbelli played the piano. Her French dialogue was also quite impressive and she elicited laughter from the audience throughout the many spoken passages. 

Alessandro Corbelli reprised Suplice, which he portrayed back in 2008 when the production first premiered. Eleven years later, Corbelli still retains the same comic timing, bringing the swagger of a soldier and agility that Laurent Pelly’s direction requires. 

As the Duchess of Krakenthorp, Kathleen Turner gave comic timing with a slightly exaggerated French accent. She gave her character a daunting arrogance that brought out a plethora of laughter; her final shriek had not only the audience in hysteria, but also her castmates. 

Paul Corona, Yohan Yi, Yohan Belmin, and Patrick Miller all brought fresh energy to the production that was also integral to making the evening a success.

In the Best Hands

In the pit, maestro Enrique Mazzola gave an energetic reading of Donizetti’s colorful score. From the get-go in the overture, there was a bright sound in the orchestra which was coupled with swift tempi. This really set the mood for the evening’s proceedings as the audience responded with ecstatic applause. Throughout the evening, Mazzola emphasized  the march-like rhythms that propelled the opera. There was also a refreshing sense of cohesion with the singers. When it came time for the softer, lyrical and slower moments, Mazzola allowed the singers to take the time and extend the lines without ever seeming overindulgent. That could also be said of his instrumental soloists, particularly in the first act finale “Il Faut Partir,” as the oboist expressed warm sound to the nostalgic moment. In Marie’s second act aria, the principal cellist engaged with gorgeous portamenti that combined perfectly with Pretty Yende’s gleaming middle voice. This attention to detail is how scenes come to life in opera and Mazzola managed them beautifully throughout the evening. You felt that everyone was in the best hands possible. 

Eleven years after Laurent Pelly’s production premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, this rendition of “La Fille du Régiment” remains fresh and exciting. Set against the backdrop of a French map, the direction flows organically with carriages and luggage populating the beginning and then giving way to a stage filled with white shirts and cots. A clothesline enters moving with the music; later on, it becomes a symbolic prop as it divides Marie from her fathers. 

The second act shows part of a house on top of the map as if it was separating Marie from her natural habitat. That house is given an exaggerated feel with servants slowly cleaning the house in utterly ridiculous gestures; the maid crawling along the floor like a rat draws intense laughter everytime. Then there are wedding guests, which are depicted as decrepit people of a dying social structure. The simplicity of the two sets allows the performers to move about with agility and never distracts from the action on stage. It remains one of the greatest productions the Met has brought in during Peter Gelb’s tenure and based on Thursday night’s reaction, one wonders why it doesn’t get more consistent revivals.

This is the perfect show for everyone. For those unfamiliar with opera, it’s an opportunity to see how much fun it can be. And for the opera-obsessed, it’s impossible to ignore the incredible artists assembled here. With “La Fille du Régiment,” the Met Opera has scored a rare victory in 2018-19. 


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