Online opera guide and synopsis to Donizetti’s LA FILLE DU REGIMENT
“La fille de régiment” is a firework of voices and calls for two great interpreters of the leading roles. The female lead role of Marie requires a great voice with that of an extraordinary theatrical personality, and the male lead requires the tenoral tour de force of the 9 high C’s of “Pour mon ame”.
♪ Act I (Regiment scene)
♪ Act II (Castle scene)
♪ Pour mon ame (Aria with the 9 high C’s)
♪ Je suis soldat… Il faut partir (Finale Act I)
♪ Tous les trois réunis (Terzetto)
♪ Quand le destin (Finale Act II)
Roles and Synopsis
Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard, based on a story of their own.
The main roles
Marie, a young sutler (soprano) - Sulpice, sergeant of a French regiment and her foster father (bass) - Tonio, a young Tyrolean (tenor) - Marquise of Berkenfield, a countess (mezzo-soprano) - Duchesse de Krakentorp, a wealthy duchess (alto, speaking part).
DECCA with Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Spiro Malas, Monica Sinclair conducted by Richard Bonynge and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Convent Garden.
Donizetti in Paris
The beginnings of the opera go back to 1839, when Donizetti wrote the Polliuto for Naples. A major conflict with the censorship authorities arose, which led to the rejection of the work. Donizetti was so enraged that he shifted the centre of his life to Paris. In 1835 he had visited the city for the first time at Rossini’s invitation and his works enjoyed growing popularity. A first great highlight in the French capital was his triumph with the French “Lucie de Lammermoor” in 1837, after which Donizetti took the city by storm. He began his Parisian career at the Théâtre des Italiens, and after 1837 he expanded his activities to the grand opéra and the Théatre de la Renaissance. With the “Fille du régiment” he took the fourth and last bastion of the Parisian opera scene, the Opéra Comique. This led to Donizetti being able to realize opera projects in all 4 opera houses in the city in the season of 1840/1841! Donizetti was able to write simultaneously in four different styles for the respective operas, a true musical chameleon! He was at the height of his career and the greatest active opera composer in the world. For Rossini had fallen silent 10 years earlier, Bellini had died a few years earlier and Verdi and Wagner were only at the beginning of their careers.
A short compositional period
The poet Heinrich Heine, who commented on Parisian musical life, was surprised: “This Italian has a lot of talent, but even more remarkable is his fertility, in which he is only surpassed by rabbits”. Between 1839 and 41 he wrote 6 of his 73 operas. About his compositional style, Donizetti said: “What I did well, I always did quickly; and I was often reproached for the very carelessness that cost me the most time. The success of the Fille confirms this observation. Donizetti seems to have written the opera in a few weeks.
Operas for the Paris Opéra Comique had their own laws. The most obvious were the spoken dialogues (as opposed to the opera buffa) and brevity (as opposed to the Grand opéra). The libretto was written by a duo: Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard. The latter had previously been a pupil of Eugene Scribe, who had previously brought the Opera comique to a high level of quality as librettist and at times as director.
The material Regimentstochter was not based on any existing literary basis, but is a creative creation of the two authors. The story has all the elements of a romantic comedy: a slightly absurd prequel (a young girl raised by a whole regiment of soldiers); rival parties (the French and the Austrians); a young couple who have to overcome this rivalry in order to be together; and a happy ending.
To be commercially attractive, it was based on the Napoleon hype of those years. The 50th anniversary of the revolution was just around the corner and Louis-Philippe, the citizen-king, had Napoleon’s mortal remains transferred to the Cathedral of Invalidity in the same year. With this act he wanted to establish a national identity to consolidate the monarchy.
In addition to the two main roles, the libretto also contains two peculiar role designs. On the one hand, Sulpice should be mentioned, who, although he plays a leading role and has a great stage presence, is not assigned an independent play, but only appears in ensembles. The second is the role of the Duchess of Krakentorp, which is purely a speaking role.
A clarification of the role of Marie. Marie is a so-called sutler (in French “Vivandière”). It is a woman who travelled with the troops to sell them food, clothing and supplies. In reality Vivandières were often married to soldiers and sometimes even acted as nurses on the battlefield, sometimes wearing their own uniforms.
The unofficial French National Opera
The effect that the opera had with its patriotic pieces on the French for decades is astonishing. It was on the repertoire of the opera houses at Quatorze Juillet for many decades and, like the Marseillaise and the fireworks, was part of the national holiday. The “Salut à la France” was for a long time the inofficial national anthem (see also the comments below at this point of the opera).
The success and the critics
The opera was warmly received on the occasion of its premiere and was accepted as it would be the work of a Frenchman. In the first year it was performed 50 times in Paris and over the next 70 years it developed into a veritable box office magnet, especially in France. Shortly after the premiere Donizetti wrote an Italian version (with the action happeing not in Tyrol but in Switzerland). The most performed version to this day, however, has remained the original version.
At the time of its premiere, the opera also received fierce critics. First and foremost to mention is Berlioz. His reviews were violent and hurtful. Of course, the play is a light-footed comedy and lives from stereotypical roles, thus offering the artist-critic a target for attack. But it cannot be denied that the envy of the less successful may have shone through. Berlioz wrote in the Journal des Débats: “Mr. Donizetti seems to want to treat us like a conquered country, it’s a real invasion war. We will no longer be able to speak of the lyrical theaters of Paris, but of Donizetti’s theaters!”
The English critic Henry Chorley wrote about the “regiment’s daughter”: “The music is of a carefree gaiety bordering on exuberance, of a genuinely military but never vulgar frankness. It’s lightweight, it’s easily familiar, it’s catchy, it’s everything that pedants like to condemn.”
LA FILLE DU REGIMENT Act I
The villagers fear the French troops
Synopsis: In a rural area of the Austrian Tyrol. Villagers stand on a hill and watch an battle of Austrian Troops against the enemy Napoleonic troops, which takes place down in the valley.
Rural music combined with marching and military sounds characterize this beautiful introduction to this opera.
Overture – Valentini
Synopsis: The thunder of cannons is audible. The villagers pray that the French troops will spare them.
A splendid choral music of the praying villagers (Sainte Madone) is heard.
L’ennemi s’avance – Gagnon
Synopsis: The Marquise of Birkenfeld is on a transit journey and has found shelter in the village. She is sick with fear and her Steward has to give her a smelling salt. When the observers think that the enemy has been defeated, high spirits set in.
This piece is a couplet, a typical form of the Opéra comique, which combines comedian lyrics with a catchy chorus.
Pour une femme de mon nom – Podles
Laurent Pelly’s production and Natalie Dessays role
Synopsis: Sulpice, a sergeant of the French army, suddenly appears. The villagers run screaming to get into their huts. He is joined by Marie, who was adopted by the regiment as a little orphan girl and now works as a sutler for the soldiers’ welfare.
We hear and see this number in the production of Pelly. In 2007, the production of Laurent Pelly, a French opera director, came on stage in Vienna (a co-production with Convent Garden and the MET), which was then shown in other renowned opera houses. The success was gigantic and set off a great renaissance of this opera. Laurent Pelly emphasized that he developed the role of Marie together with Natalie Dessay, who influenced the role with her acting talent.
Au bruit de la guerre – Dessay
Synopsis: Sulpice, her foster father, talks to Marie about a man with whom she has been seen frequently lately. She tells him that it is Tonio, a local who saved her life. Soldiers show up with a prisoner in their midst. Marie recognizes Tonio, who tried to see her and was caught. The soldiers threaten to kill the alleged spy. When they realize, that Tonio is Marie’s lifesaver, they celebrate Tonio. To celebrate the day, Marie sings the regiment’s song.
Another couplet from Donizetti, the song of the 21st regiment. It is one of the melodies that Donizetti could invent seemingly on the spot. We hear and see Natalie Dessay.
Chacun le sait, chacun le dit – Dessay
Synopsis: The soldiers leave for the ordered roll call.
The male choruses are another trademark of this opera. The voices are accompanied by tambours, jingles, cornets and (piccolo) flutes, which bring military colour to the music without ever appearing coarse.
C’est l’instant de l’appel…Dès que l’appel sonne – Gagnon
Synopsis: When the two are alone, Tonio confesses Marie his love. When Sulpice returns, he sends Tonio away.
Natalie Dessay is one of Marie’s most famous role models. “I’m not a singer, I’m an actress who sings,” Natalie Dessay said of herself. She shone in the famous production of Pelly, which celebrated triumphs in many capitals of the western world in changing casts from 2007 onwards. For her performance as an actress in this opera , she received a prestigious acting award in England, “the Laurence Olivier Award”. In the following play you can first enjoy the comedic talent of Natalie Dessay again and in the second part (from 4:50) you will hear the beautiful love duet “De cet aveu si tendre”.
Quoi? Vous m’aimez – Sutherland / Pavarotti
“Pour mon âme” – the tenor aria with the 9 high C’s
Synopsis: Now Countess Birkenfeld ventures out of hiding and asks Sulpice for help. When he learns the name of the marquise, he remembers the late regimental captain Robert, who was married to a Birkenfeld. They even had a small child, and who became an orphan at an early age. When they disappeared the regiment took her in as a daughter. The Marquise tells him that this was her sister. When Marie appears and Sulpice introduces her to her aunt, she has to realize that Marie’s manners are not those of a lady of her standing. She wants to take Marie with her at once. When Marie resists, she takes out a letter from her father, who declares this to be his last will. Soldiers appear.
Among them is Tonio, who has registered to be close to Marie. The soldiers are surprised to learn that the new soldier is the lover of the regiment’s daughter. Tonio asks her to marry him, because he is after all a soldier in the regiment.
“Pour mon âme” is the most famous piece of the opera “La fille du régiment” and one of the most famous tenor arias ever. It deserves this mainly because it requires the singer to sing an incredible 9 high C’s in only 2 minutes. The challenge of the aria lies in the fact that the high C’s must be sung with a robust chest tone and clear intonation (it should be noted that the high C was possibly sung only with the falsetto at the time of composition. The tenor Duprez sang it for the first time in Rossini’s William Tell in 1837 in chest, the so-called “do in petto”, and established the Voice Fach of the heroic tenor). Jokingly the aria is also called “the Mount Everest of tenors”. It is estimated that in one tenor generation there are only a handful of tenors who can sing them really perfectly.
“La fille du regiment” from 1968 is one of the greatest recordings Pavarotti ever made. It was only his second complete recording of his then still young recording career. John Steane ( in “The grand tradition”), the influential critic speaks of one of the best tenor performances on record ever, sung with the finesse of the mature artist and the flourishing voice of the young man. The music journalist Edward Greenfield was present during the recording sessions and reported that this aria had to be sung several times before it was “in the can” and Pavarotti repeated and re-recorded this grueling act without slackening.
Pavarotti’s MET performances in 1972 have become legendary. He took the audience by storm with his aria and with the following tour through the United States he finally became a tenorissimo on the American continent and the globe. He got the nickname “King of the High C’s”.
Pour mon ame – Pavarotti
Pavarotti was not a classical “tenore di grazia”, but usually sang in the somewhat “heavier” vocal fach of the “lyrical tenor”. The following recordings are from singers with slightly lighter voices, which are less strong and broad, but rise more gracefully into the upper notes.
Juan Diego Florez’s “Pour mon ame ” has a similar story of a famous encore. In 2007 he sang the Tonio at La Scala and he was the first to be granted an aria as an encore since 1933. Nota bene this was not allowed to a Tebaldi or Callas, nor to a Domingo or Pavarotti! We hear a live recording with an encore from from that time from the Genoa Opera House.
Pour mon ame – Florez
The elegy after the euphoria
Synopsis: Marie appears and has to say goodbye to her soldiers. Tonio takes the news with dismay. He decides to follow her, but Sulpice tells him that he has registered and is not allowed to leave the regiment. Sadly, Tonio and the soldiers have to say goodbye to Marie.
After the effervescent “Pour mon ame”, the libretto skilfully switches to the absolute opposite. Donizetti was aware that a good comedy needs human feelings. This moment offers the deeply sad “il faut partir” (I must leave), another highlight of this opera. Introduced and accompanied by a melancholy solo of the English horn, we hear the piece, bathed in the gloomy F minor.
You will hear the finale of this act in two versions. First the studio version of Bonynge with Sutherland and Pavarotti. Bonynge took a slower tempo and gave Joan Sutherland the opportunity for a moving elegy.
Je suis soldat… Il faut partir… – Sutherland
The second version is again a live recording with Dessay and Florez.
Je suis soldat … Il faut partir… – Dessay
LA FILLE DU REGIMENT Act II
The hilarious scene of the singing lesson
Synopsis: In the castle of the Birkenfelds. The Marquise has commissioned a notary to draw up a marriage contract. According to her will, Marie is to marry the son of the Duchess of Krakentorp. Although Marie has consented, she is sad. The Marquise has summoned Sulpice to talk to her. He appears during a singing lesson given by her to Marie, which shows that Marie has not yet completely abandoned her military manners. The singing lesson gets out of hand, as Marie, while being taught an old-fashioned aria, repeatedly falls into the melody of the regimental anthem. The Marquise leaves the room to take care of the preparations for the reception of the Duke’s son and other distinguished heads of the country.
This scene has a well-known model, Rosina’s singing lesson from the Barber of Siviglia. Donizetti was of course familiar with this work but created an independent piece. As in Barbiere, Marie has to sing an old-fashioned aria (“Le jour naissait dans le bocage”) with languishing trills and roulades , which the marquise accompanies with almost grotesque and simple chords on the piano. Sulpice sabotages it with Rataplan interjections. Marie willingly begins the song, but soon, to the Marquise’s horror, she returns to the military with a cascade of scales and arpeggios and sings the regimental song. The Marquise is dismayed about the relapse after 1 year of education.
We hear the singing lesson in two versions. On the one hand the great Belcantist version with Joan Sutherland, who with her great technique really turned this singing lesson into a singing lesson.
Le jour naissait dans le bocage – Sutherland / Malas / Sinclair
The second version is again a live recording. Of course it is difficult to compare a live recording with a studio recording. Vocally, Dessay does not have the sophistication of the former, it is too overexcited for that, but it carries the listener away with its comedic drive.
Le jour naissait dans le bocage – Dessay / Corbelli
Salut à la France – The unofficial French national anthem
Synopsis: Sulpice is notified of the arrival of soldiers. He leaves to meet them. Marie is alone and deeply sad. All her wealth is only superficial, for her heart is with the soldiers of the regiment and with Tonio. Suddenly she hears the music of a military march. With a pounding heart she awaits the arrival of the soldiers, who greet her joyfully.
One exciting element of this opera is that in the first act the Marquise is the foreign body of a person of the ancien régime who has fallen out of time and has lost her way in the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Thus, in the second act, Marie experiences the same fate in reverse, the daughter of the regiment has lost her way in a household of the ancien régime and feels she is in the wrong place.
This play is divided into two parts. First we hear Marie’s elegy, written in dark F minor. The second part is the famous “Salut à la France”, which became the unofficial national anthem, especially during the second empire.
In the whole scene the belcantist art with its art of ornamentation and legato and a lot of expressiveness is demanded again.
C’en est donc fait … Par le rang et par l’opulence en vain l’on a cru m’éblouir – Dessay
In the portrait of this opera the name of Lily Pons must not be missing. She was one of the great MET divas of the 40s and 50s. Born in France and naturalized American, she was involved with concerts at the front during the Second World War. Her performance at the Met on 29 December 1940 after the occupation of Paris became famous. With Roosevelt’s permission, she swung a flag of the French tricolour in a performance of the Fille du Régiment, during the scene of the singing lesson and sang the Marseillaise. The audience stood up and enthusiastically greeted this patriotic act.
Salut à la France – Pons
The reunion with Tonio and the terzetto
Synopsis: Tonio is also among the soldiers, and has been promoted to officer in the meantime.
The Terzetto is a typical product of the Opéra comique. One almost has the feeling of already anticipating Offenbach, who wrote his first operettas 15 years later. The repetitive elements and the exuberant melody soaked with dancing rhythms are deeply operetta-like. Donizetti’s ability to adapt to local conditions earned him the nickname “musical chameleon”.
Tous les trois réunis – Dessay / Florez / Corbelli
Synopsis: When he greets Marie, the marquise appears, surprised by the visit of the soldiers. Tonio tells her that he loves Marie and wants to marry her.
With this romance, Tonio’s music changes, his music has become more masculine. The aria stands in the shadow of the more famous aria with the many high C’s. This is a pity, because it offers the opportunity for long and rich phrasings. It contains a difficult high D flat in the final section and is therefore one of the dangerous arias for which tenors have great respect.
This aria does not appear in the Italian version of the opera, which is an indication that Donizetti wrote this aria for French taste.
We are listening to Alfredo Kraus, a contemporary of Pavarotti. His singing skills were certainly on a par with those of his more famous colleague, but he never achieved the popularity of the latter. His technique was excellent. He was a leggiero tenor with great mastery of high tones. The voice had less the warmth of vibrato, but was direct and straightforward.
Pour me rapprocher de Marie, je m’enrolai – Kraus
Synopsis: But the marquise explains to him that her marriage is a done deal. She wishes to be alone with Sulpice. She confesses to him that in reality Marie is her daughter. It was she who ran off with Captain Robert. When he had to go on a campaign, she could not take Marie home without endangering her position. Because it is still impossible for her to acknowledge the illegitimate child, she nontheless wants Marie to receive the social position she is entitled to through marriage. When the Duchess and her family appear, the notary issues the marriage certificates. Then Tonio appears with the soldiers to save Marie. Horrified, the guests hear from him that Marie was a sutler of a regiment. Moved, Marie explains to the wedding party that she was the daughter of a regiment that generously welcomed her. She is nevertheless prepared to face the marriage. The Marquise is touched by Marie’s willingness to make sacrifices and allows her to marry the man of her heart. She chooses Tonio and the regiment celebrates the turn for the better.
This opera ends with another turn of events. The libretto is dramaturgically skilfully arranged and good craftsmanship and brings the required happy end. The work ends with a reprise of the “Salut à la France”.
Oui! Quand le destin – Sutherland / Pavarotti
Recording recommendation of the opera
DECCA with Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Spiro Malas, Monica Sinclair under the direction of Richard Bonynge and the orchestra and chorus of the Royal Opera House Convent Garden
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT by Gaetano Donizetti.