Today was our second to last rehearsal for Fille du Regiment. I asked our maestro, Martin Yazdzik, to share a some insight on the opera with you. I hope you find something in this thoughtful essay to bring new light to your next experience with Fille, whether it’s this Saturday afternoon with us or anywhere else.
Just as Shakespeare and the Elisabethans define the classic English theatre diction, irrespective of the artistic quality of the works themselves, so the bel canto composers Italian classical theatre. When we think of dividing theatre types, from the Greeks to the present, the genres comedy, tragedy, and history remain both general and accepted as classification.
La Fille du Régiment remains one of the most beloved, strangely moving, and difficult of the classic Italian comedies. The story itself, that of an abandoned child being reared by a regiment is both archetypal and conflicted in presentation. Thinking about the stock characters, the vivandière, the paternal, even prudish soldiers guarding her chastity, trying to teach her morals, manners, and “how to get on somehow”, the “aunt” who abandoned her, due to social stricture, the lover, appearing through the deus ex machina, the discovery of the girl by the aunt, and finally the arranged marriage to allow for the “niece” to take her rightful place in the world of aristocracy, we could find a simplified, lusty comedy of manners. Indeed, Donizetti’s musical characterisations are heartfelt, direct, and possibly personalised from his own time the military.
Bayard’s libretto could have been set to mere burlesque, but it is not so. While one can count the high c’s in Pour mon âme, or enjoy the magical music of Marie, coloured from saucy, to piquant, to genuine sadness, it is the gentle, insinuating use of melody that creates the simplest, and at the same time most subtle relationships among real people that makes musical theatre that genre which moves one through laughter, tears, one after the other, and sometimes both at the same time. Who cannot be moved at the Marquise confessing that her “niece” is her daughter, then watching her realise that her own behaviour, forcing her daughter to marry rank, was the selfsame act that ruined her own life. How few mothers do this. Yet here, under the guise of the typical formulaic singing lesson scene, both mother and daughter find the warm place in their hearts for the mother’s deceased and the daughter’s living lover.
Comedy is, by definition, a work in which the protagonists do not die, but the death of Captain Robert, the lover, the father, is, in essence, the colour of this piece. Not the pentimento of old masters in sombre colours but the gay, vibrant, life-giving comic touches make this masterpiece a funny serious musical where joy, the assertion of life and love, in the end, overcome the thanatopsis of something like Lucia. The vocal style, however, is about the same. The underlying concept of language for its own beauty’s sake, whether spoken or sung, defines classicism. Each melody so completely binds form and content that the content/form is, in its very essence, the melos, the feeling of the moment.
Casting roles such as Marie reminds one that Lind, Pons, Patti, and their ilk are rare. Not only must each note be flawlessly beautiful, but each line perfectly shaped. Then, after timbre, phrasing, must each line reflect its internal dramatic content. It is no wonder that the greatest singing actresses are not necessarily from whose lush voice Puccini creates pathos with almost mechanical certainty, but those who cut their teeth on the classics. To find the warm humour in the Marie Tonio duet, or the magic espressivo of the finale, both the ariette, but more importantly, the patter, itself as expressive a love song as the more intimate declarations, defines a competent Marie. We are lucky in having Amanda, whose beauty of timbre always serves the meaning of the line. To be flagrantly slapstick is one art form, to bathe in verismo hyper-awareness another, but to pull off vocal gymnastics which serve a humane, compassionate purpose, defining a real person, whose real conflicts resolve into a balance of joy, this is the ether of classic comedy, and the ethos of La Fille du Régiment.