To be read before
Born in Bergamo in 1797, Gaetano Donizetti occupied a transitional place between Rossini and Verdi. Less affected by romanticism than Bellini, Donizetti was the link between two trends to which Italy owes its most authentic masterpieces. We owe him an abundance of lyrical works: some sixty operas composed between 1816 and1843, most of which have fallen into oblivion. As student of Simon Mayr at the Bergamo School of Music, his first opera, Enrico di Borgogna, was performed in 1818, thanks to the help of his teacher who had recognised his young talent. In 1822, Zoraide di Granata met with remarkable success. Then, a series of commissions turned Donizetti into a full-time composer of operas. From 1822 to 1830, he wrote no fewer than 26 operas. His first real triumph came with Anna Bolena (1830). The death of Bellini and Rossini’s premature retirement would contribute to Donizetti’s growing success in Europe. He composed Les Martyrs, La Favorite and Dom Sebastian for the Paris Opera. La Fille du régiment was first performed at the Opéra Comique. Vienna commissioned Linda di Chamounix and Maria di Rohan from him. His final masterpiece, Don Pasquale, was first performed at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1843. Although at the height of his glory, his health deteriorated rapidly. Hospitalised in Ivry in 1846, he died in 1848 in his native town of Bergamo from complications due to cerebrospinal degeneration. He left many other operas for posterity, including Lucrèce Borgia (1833), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), Maria Stuarda (1835), Roberto Devereux (1837), Maria di Rudenz (1838) and Caterina Cornaro (1844).
In 1838, Donizetti settled in Paris. He set about creating a French version of Lucia di Lammermoor for the Théâtre de la Renaissance (Salle Ventadour). With La Fille du régiment, he worked for the first time on a libretto originally written in French. Rejecting the “warlike things” of Scribe, Donizetti called on the librettists “to bring emotions to the stage and not battles”. With a plot set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars and the idealized image of a good-natured army, Donizetti composed one of his most beautiful scores which would become one of the summits of bel canto (the work is particularly famous for the tenor aria Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête! including no fewer than nine high Cs, succeeding each other at a rapid pace). This rather jingoistic drama offers larger-than-life comical characters, and a communicative “joie de vivre” coupled with a gentle lyricism and a charmingly cheerful, romantic score. Still, the work was not an immediate success: Hector Berlioz, in particular, irked at seeing an Italian composer intrude upon a Parisian stage, wrote an acerbic critique of the work in the Journal des Débats. It was not until the 1848 revival that the work would achieve unfailing popularity. On January 2 1908, La Fille du régiment celebrated its 1,000th performance at the Opéra Comique, where it had long been customary to present the work on July 14, Bastille Day. The work was presented in Milan the year it was first performed, in an Italian version in which considerably shortened dialogues were replaced by recitatives.
The first performance
La Fille du régiment was first performed at the Opéra Comique (Salle des Nouveautés) on February 11, 1840, with Juliette Borghèse (Marie).
The work at the Paris Opera
The work was performed regularly at the Opéra Comique until 1914. It then disappeared from the bill until 1979, when a Jean-Louis Martin-Barbaz production at the Salle Favart (Paris Opera) brought together Mady Mesplé (in alternation with Danièle Chlostawa), Charles Burles and Alain Fondary, under the baton of Paul Ethuin. In 1986, Bruno Stefano was invited to create a new production (with sets and costumes by Bernard Arnould), again at the Salle Favart, with June Anderson, Alfredo Kraus and Michel Trempont, and conducted by Bruno Campanella. The same production was revived in 1988 with Alida Ferrarini and Vincenzo La Scola in the leading roles.
The year is 1815 and we are in the Tyrolean mountains. The Marquise de Berkenfield and her butler Hortensius have been caught by surprise by the advancing French troops the very day they are preparing to flee to Austria. The Marquise finds herself among the villagers. The men are carrying rifles, the women are praying to the Virgin Mary (Sainte Madone). Perhaps as a result of the prayers, the French troops leave the mountain. The Marquise is relieved, after having been so afraid (Pour une femme de mon nom). She retires to get some rest.
Left alone, Hortensius finds himself opposite Sulpice, a sergeant in the 21st regiment. The butler is terribly afraid but he manages to obtain a pass for himself and his mistress.
Marie joins Sulpice. She is the adopted daughter of the regiment that found her on a battlefield twelve years earlier (Au bruit de la guerre, j’ai reçu le jour). The entire regiment has acted as a father to her (Mon régiment, j’en suis fière vraiment). Lately, Marie has become a vivandière (Nommée à l’unanimité).
However, for some time now, Marie has been seeing a Tyrolean partisan, Tonio. Sulpice is anything but happy with his daughter’s new relationship. Marie is sad and in love. She and Tonio have decided not see each other anymore. Meanwhile, the entire regiment arrives escorting the Tyrolean who, at the risk of being killed, has come to meet with Marie. (C’est un traître, qu’il périsse). Marie saves Tonio just as he saved her life after she almost fell off a cliff while picking flowers (Quoi, la mort à celui qui me sauva la vie!). The Tyrolean drinks to his new friends, Marie sings the regimental song (Il est là, morbleu, le beau Vingt-et-unième).
The regiment leaves taking Tonio with them, but he soon escapes to return to Marie (Quoi ! Vous m’aimez ?). Sulpice surprises them. Marie is compelled to admit to Tonio that she can only marry a soldier from the 21st regiment. Tonio refuses to give up.
The Marquise of Berkenfield is given an escort by Sulpice in order to return to her castle. But Sulpice recognizes the name Berkenfield: the same name was on the letter found next to the infant Marie when she was recovered on the battlefield. We learn that the Marquise is the aunt of the vivandière. Appalled by Marie’s manners, she decides to bring her niece to the castle in the hope of giving her a decent education.
Unfortunately Tonio has just enlisted on the French side (Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!). He wins the hand of the vivandière. But Marie must leave the man she loves and her regiment (Il faut partir).
We are at the home of the Marquise de Berkenfield. The latter has just arranged an advantageous marriage for Marie with Duke Scipion de Crackentorp.
Sulpice, who is also at the castle is supposed to be assisting the Marquise in her project to re-educate Marie. On the agenda: music. Today, Marie has to sing an Italian love song (Le jour naissait dans le bocage). But Sulpice encourages Marie into disobedience (Rataplan, c’est le refrain du régiment). The military song blends with the love song. The Marquise is furious and Marie is very unhappy (Sous les bijoux et la dentelle, je cache un chagrin sans espoir). Just then, the entire regiment bursts into the castle (C’est elle, notre fille!). Tonio is among them. The soldiers seize Hortensius, the butler. Tonio and Sulpice stay with Marie (Tous les trois réunis).
Tonio asks the Marquise for Marie’s hand (Pour me rapprocher de Marie). The Marquise refuses so Tonio makes up his mind to speak. He has learned from his uncle that the Marquise is not Marie’s aunt. He considers abduction. However, alone with Sulpice, the Marquise admits the truth. She is in fact Marie’s mother and the father was Captain Robert, a soldier. Afraid that a love affair unbefitting of her station would become public, she abandoned her child.
The guests arrive for the signature of the marriage contract. Marie refuses to leave her room. The Marquise doesn’t know what to do. The dreadful Duchess of Crackentorp quickly grows impatient. Meanwhile, Sulpice decides to enlighten Marie as to the secret of her birth. She can no longer refuse. Marie indeed comes out of her room. However, as she prepares to sign the contract, all the soldiers, led by Tonio, burst into the marriage chamber (Au secours de notre fille, nous accourrons tous ici). The guests are horrified to learn that the young girl was a vivandière (Une fille de régiment) but confronted by Marie’s feelings, they change their opinion (Au fait, elle est charmante).
The Marquise does not wish to sacrifice her daughter and accepts her marriage to Tonio. Everyone present sings a final: Salut à la France.