Mademoiselle MG flew into town to celebrate her birthday and joined Dr. Hank and me for dinner and the opera. Comfortably esconced in the corner of Sauce's attractive backroom we had a nice meal beforehand featuring one of the best bruschettas I've ever tasted. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The Mademoiselle has the ability to somehow turn the weather warm when she arrives and Friday was no exception, causing the balcony of the War Memorial Opera House to be almost unbearably warm that evening. Thankfully we were seeing La Fille du Regiment and not Parsifal. With the Dr. in a dapper suit (he insisted on being at his sartorial best for his first encounter with Diana Damrau) and the Mademoiselle in sexy schoolgirl attire we watched the show in the sweltering, completely full balcony, which on this evening contained two women seated directly in front of us who somehow mistook the opera house for a Heart concert- at least that's how it looked to me through their massive 80's-era Nancy Wilson fake blonde hair. Seated in front of them was tall jerk who leaned forward constantly. Listen bub, don't lean forward at all- it blocks the vision of the people seated behind you. Why are people such boobs? I had to hiss at him to sit back since the blondies wouldn't for some reason, though they thought it perfectly reasonable to switch seats with one another during the performance so one could see better. The man seated next to me insisted on being an obnoxious ass too, conducting along with his finger and humming at times. So you know the opera? You can keep that to yourself, you know. It's okay- your date isn't going to be impressed and it just annoys the rest of us.
Donizetti has never been a favorite composer of mine, mostly because although he wrote great arias, I've never found his melodies that memorable nor his music to be very inventive or exciting (one exception being the sextet in Lucia). However after seeing four excellent stagings of his operas in a row over the past year and a half, I guess I'm going to have to acknowledge that when cast well, Donizetti can be great.
Director Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du Regiment, previously quartered in Vienna, Covent Garden and the Met before arriving here in San Francisco is really an unqualified delight, even better than last season's very tasty Elixir. The cast is terrific and I really liked the sets, which looked great from the balcony- large maps of Europe that are laid to form the stage's terrain during the first act, to be replaced in the second by a parlor that doesn't draw attention to itself but serves the action and the setting well without being too minimal.
Diana Damrau makes her local debut as Marie, the girl of title, who has been raised by an army regiment. Damrau's voice is exquisite, but what makes her such a success here is her comic timing and the physicality she invests into the role. She's a tomboy sprite who bounces all over the stage while whipping off bel canto runs that remained consistent all evening. Until I read it in the program I was unaware Damrau was doing the role for the first time. This is pretty surprising because she looked totally at home with it, as if she had been performing it for a long time. The entire production has a fluidity to it making it appear this particular ensemble has been together for awhile- while there is almost a hyperkinetic level of activity at times, everything just unfolds seamlessly across the stage.
Juan Diego Florez's Tonio, a role for which he's becoming famous, was well-sung and lovely to listen to, even though his voice is not large enough to fill the War Memorial. He dispatched the famous string of high Cs in "Ah! mes ami" with ease, though it wasn't the show-stopping moment anyone familiar with last season's Met broadcast would have hoped for. Both he and Damrau had their best moments in the 2nd act's quieter, more reflective moments- his came during "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," perhaps the most satisfying of the evening's highlights.
The supporting roles were all solidly cast, with Bruno Pratico's Sulpice especially standing out. Meredith Arwady's Marquise and Sheila Nadler's Duchess had their comic timing down perfectly. Conductor Andriy Yurkevych, making his U.S. debut, kept things moving along briskly without drawing too much attention to the orchestra and always allowing the singers to be heard- perhaps the best way to conduct Donizetti.
Four or five times the Duchess barked out some of the singspiel lines in English, which I enjoyed and the Dr. thought annoying. It reminded me of the fact that operas used to be sung in the native tongues of wherever they were being performed. I for one, though I'm sure many would consider this blasphemy, wouldn't mind seeing this practice return for certain types of operas- namely comedies, because I think it would be more effective to actually hear the funny lines rather than read them in the surtitles. Sure, the translations would have to be suitable, but I think it's worth considering, especially since very few people in an American audience understand French, Italian or German and very few people have the time to acquaint themselves with the libretto in depth beforehand.
After the performance, which everyone in the house seemed to truly enjoy, we made our way for drinks and conversation to the Pilsner, where it always seems more difficult to get a drink than it should be, regardless of whether or not one is seated at the bar. The barback however, does make a pefect Negroni. So perfect in fact, that we were all a bit surprised to find ourselves still there at closing time.