Comedy works best, one theory goes, when the people in it don’t know they are being funny. Another school favors a more Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) approach, in which the reasonable turns into the improbable, and the improbable into the outrageous. The Metropolitan Opera’s visually drab but industriously comic new production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” represents theory No. 1 with touches of theory No. 2.
Laurent Pelly’s production updates Napoleonic warfare in the Tyrol to the time of World War I. Pains were taken to excise every bit of fluff and gold braid, anything that might remind us of the toy-soldier productions traditional to this ever-endearing piece. Maybe the idea is to clear away anything that obstructs the view of the Met’s marvelous principals.
As a full house at the Met awaited the sporting event of the evening, Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio, the aspiring lover from the mountains, delivered his famous string of high C’s in Act I and then, repeating the whole thing, nailed them again. The crowd, as they say, went wild. Less theatrical but perhaps more difficult were the restrained, drawn-out held notes he managed so well later in the evening.
Mr. Flórez is opera’s latest, best response to a category of tenor voice that predominated in 1840 but no longer exists. Donizetti’s tenor parts — requiring a different physical technique, lighter than the sound we are used to and benefiting from what were often drastically smaller opera houses — were also tuned lower. In other words, his B flat and our B flat are not the same.
Mr. Flórez offers a splendid metaphor for something that cannot be historically reproduced. His tone is slender but athletic. It has a ring and a resonance easily heard in a space the size of which Donizetti certainly did not plan on. Mr. Flórez is fluent in the ways of rapid-fire bel canto delivery, and he delivers simpler tunes winningly.
Natalie Dessay as Marie, the heroine of the title, asked us to consider a third theory of comedy: that people are funny when they behave like machines. Ms. Dessay will not be accused of stand-and-deliver opera. At one moment she is a flailing robot, with gauges set imprudently high and threatening meltdown. Yet (and this is crucial to her success) she fades instantly and easily from machine into something human: an extraordinarily busy kind of humanity, operating at jacked-up, silent-movie tempos.Continue reading the main story
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