Spotlight On: The Daughter of the Regiment


At Seattle Opera October 19 – November 2

Music by
Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by
Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François Bayard

First Performed Paris, 1840 | In French with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall
Long Story Short:
Tomboy, unable to transform into snooty duchess, finds true love anyway.

Who's Who?
was adopted by a regiment when they found her on a battlefield as an infant; thus she has 1,500 fathers and no mother. At the beginning of the opera she's a teenage "vivandière" or camp girl.
Sulpice is a gruff old sergeant in Napoleon's 21st Grenadiers.
The Marquise of Berkenfield, a rich spinster, knows a secret about Marie's past.
Hortensius is the cowardly servant of the Marquise.
Tonio, a young Tyrolean peasant, saved Marie's life when she slipped while mountain-climbing. He immediately became smitten.
The Duchess of Krackenthorp is a haughty grand dame lioness with an eligible bachelor son, somewhere offstage.

Where and When?
In Tyrol, a region in the Alps, in the early nineteenth century. Seattle Opera's 2013 production is set in the 1940s.

What's Going On?
Sergeant Sulpice, the big cheese in a regiment of French soldiers just about to pull out of Tyrol, is a little worried about Marie, the daughter of the regiment.

She's been spotted several times now, talking to a handsome young local. But, by regimental decree as well as her own vow, Marie can only marry a soldier from the regiment. So when her sweetheart Tonio is captured by the regiment as an enemy spy, he enlists in order to be eligible to marry his beloved. It's the happiest day of his life, he sings, when he becomes both soldier and affianced.

But his happiness is short-lived. Encountering the regiment, the Marquise of Birkenfeld, a local aristocrat, recognizes in Marie a child long missing from her wealthy family. She whisks Marie off to be made into a lady, leaving the regiment forlorn and Tonio devastated.

Some months later, the Marquise is trying to arrange a marriage between Marie and the young Duke of Krackentorp. Her efforts to transform Marie into a dazzling society debutante, however, have failed to take; Marie prefers singing her old regimental ditties to the latest popular Romantic songs.

Tonio, meanwhile, has worked his way up in the regiment to lieutenant's rank; he has also been doing some snooping and has determined that the Marquise's story about Marie's birth is untrue. On the night of Marie's arranged wedding he bursts into the Birkenfeld chateau, accompanied by the regiment, and confronts the Marquise. The secret of Marie's origin is revealed, society snobbery is foiled, true love wins out, and everybody salutes the French flag!

About the Composer

Gaetano Donizetti was born in 1797 to a poor family in Bergamo, in Austrian-controlled northern Italy near the Swiss Alps. Although no one in the family had previously shown any musical aptitude, young Gaetano was to become one of Italy's most important composers--and his brother (who relocated to Istanbul) became chief of music to the armies of the failing Ottoman Empire.

When Donizetti displayed phenomenal keyboard skills at an early age, a local composer took him on as a pupil. Curiously, the man who would write some of the most lyrical, singable music in all opera was himself a terrible singer. Donizetti's mentor set him up with his first opera commission, a comedy for an opera house in Venice. But just as his career in opera was getting going, Donizetti came of age to be drafted into the Austrian army. A wealthy lady from Donizetti's hometown came to the composer's rescue and paid to exempt him from entering the army.

For the next 20 years, Donizetti would scurry back and forth across Italy, writing 80-some operas for all the important theaters. He and another composer, a younger man named Vincenzo Bellini, were life-long rivals, each hoping to succeed Gioachino Rossini as Italy's leading opera composer--until Bellini died young. Donizetti was a skilled craftsman and a hard-nosed, practical man of the theater. Although he took a great deal of care to get his libretti perfect, he was known to reuse music from his old operas when composing new ones. He believed an opera was something that happened on a stage in front of an audience, not something that existed on paper. As a result, he tended to rewrite his operas extensively when he toured them to different cities, based on the abilities of the singers who had gathered for a given production. Many of Donizetti's greatest successes came in Naples, where the opera industry had been booming for hundreds of years. While producing an opera in Rome, Donizetti met Virginia Vasselli, who later became his wife.

Donizetti wrote both comic and tragic operas, as was typical in his day. Famed for infusing his comedies with a touch of pathos or momentary seriousness, Donizetti wrote (among others) three comedies--The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale, in addition to La fille du régiment --which remain staples of the opera repertory. Many of his serious operas, like the Tudor trilogy Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, draw their stories (loosely) from European history. His masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor, rapidly became the most popular opera of its day.

In his late 30s, Donizetti was the undisputed king of the Italian opera scene, and as such began venturing abroad to conquer foreign opera houses. In Paris, he was a great success at each of the different theaters that were creating opera. A few years later, Donizetti conquered an opera house in Vienna. For a short period in the early 1840s, he was the most important composer in Europe.

Donizetti was an agreeable, pleasant man who went through a great deal of personal tragedy. His parents died within a week of each other, and his wife died of cholera shortly thereafter. Donizetti himself began losing his mind in 1845, and before long it became clear that he had syphilis. His children had all died, so a nephew looked after him during his few remaining years--a period in which he could barely carry on a conversation, much less continue to compose. He died in his hometown of Bergamo in 1848.

Italian Francophilia

La fille du régiment is a patriotic French opera by an Italian composer—written just as opera was starting to become an international affair. In Donizetti's youth, Italians wrote and sang Italian operas, while the French wrote and sang French operas. (Neither group paid much attention to what the Germans were doing; and the British had entirely outsourced the writing of operas.) Although language does play a huge role in opera, it's more than just language that changes among these national opera schools. Different cultures have different sensibilities, different musical styles, different senses of humor. What appeals in one culture might be anathema elsewhere. Yet increasingly over the course of the nineteenth century, success as a great opera composer meant writing operas with international appeal.

For Italian bel canto composers of the early nineteenth century, success meant Paris. There were plenty of opera houses in Italy; but the French capitol was the cultural center of the world in those days, and a success there meant a composer had truly arrived. Bellini achieved a hit in Paris with I puritani in 1835; Rossini moved there for good about the same time; and as for Donizetti, by the time La fille du régiment premiered, at Paris's Opéra-Comique, the French composer and journalist Hector Berlioz, green with envy, could write: "Two major scores at the Opéra...two more at the Renaissance...two at the Opéra-Comique...all written or transcribed in one year by the same composer! It seems that Monsieur Donizetti is treating us as conquered territory; it is a genuine invasion. One can no longer say 'the operatic stages of Paris,' merely 'the operatic stages of Monsieur Donizetti.'"

Donizetti, like Rossini and Bellini before him, had done well at a Paris theater that regularly gave Italian opera, the Théâtre des Italiens. (Rossini, as a matter of fact, had been music director there.) But the Opéra and the Opéra-Comique were theaters that produced strictly French forms of music theater, carefully adhering to certain conventions. Shows at the Opéra, known as grand operas, were big, expensive, and serious, full of ballet, scenic spectacle, and exciting catastrophe. Shows at the Opéra-Comique, by contrast, were lighter in tone and appealed to a more bourgeois audience. Donizetti was canny enough to figure out how to appeal to both houses.

La fille du régiment was originally conceived as an opéra-comique, with all the obligatory characteristics: humorous spoken dialogue in French, lots of peppy tunes, gentle mockery of the upper classes, and a happy conclusion in which the handsome young man weds the pretty girl. Moreover, La fille is extremely patriotic—if you're French. (In fact, Marie's catchy "Salut à la France!" march became an unofficial French anthem.) Most Italians of Donizetti's generation had little reason to love Napoleon, whose armies had devastated much of northern Italy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But it's immediately apparent that the toy soldiers of La fille du régiment have little to do with any real-world political or historical conflict. French audiences would be drawn to Marie's regiment, but so would opera audiences from other countries. Donizetti himself adapted La fille to make an opera buffa, sung in Italian (with newly composed recitatives) shortly after the Paris premiere. The Italian version, La figlia del reggimento, caught on in Italy, England, and the United States, but the original French version, which had racked up 1000 performances at the Opéra-Comique before World War I, is more often performed today. This original French version is the one that will be performed in Seattle in 2013.

In the Days Before Operetta...
When Donizetti wrote La fille du régiment in 1840 there wasn't any such thing as operetta. In Italy alone there was opera seria, opera semiseria, and opera buffa, and this hugely prolific composer had proven himself a master in all three forms. But he set out in a new direction when he wrote La fille du régiment, partly because he was writing for a French theater. Donizetti knew the audience at the Opéra Comique probably wouldn't go for the bawdy old Italian jokes of opera buffa.

In creating La fille du régiment he paved the way for operetta. La fille was enormously popular throughout the late nineteenth century, and its vibrant music, genteel comedy, and light-as-a-soufflé tone set the pattern for this new art form: scaled-back, feel-good opera for the burgeoning middle classes. The aristocracy is made to look vaguely ridiculous in La fille du régiment as in all operetta; but at the same time that we're teasing them, we're enjoying a glimpse at the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The comedy in La fille du régiment, and in operetta, is family-friendly: vulgarity is unforgivable in this theater, good taste is everything. One important way upwardly mobile members of the new middle class showed off their class and cultivation was by singing and playing the "proper" music (remember, all music in the nineteenth century was live, whether at an opera house or in a bourgeois home). So Donizetti wrote tunes you could walk out of the theater humming, melodies that were easily arranged for parlor performance by amateurs. Granted, not many of us can do a creditable job singing the nine high Cs of Tonio's "Pour mon âme;" but there's no law against transposing that passage down for use at home, in which case it calls for the range of "The Star-Spangled Banner." More notes than your standard folk song—but we nouveau riche are a cut above the common folk, n'est-ce pas?

Thus operetta carved out a social space for itself between the lower and upper classes. But different varieties of operetta developed in each country. The humor, charm, and personality of the French operettas of Offenbach are quite different than that of the Viennese operettas by Johann Strauss, Jr. or Franz Lehár; and of course Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas, though popular in the United States, are as British as Monty Python. Donizetti's accomplishment—creating, in La fille du régiment, a light opera that is loved equally in France, Italy, and everywhere else—was the exception, not the rule.

The Music of La fille du régiment
Before he began La fille, Donizetti had proven himself a master of opera buffa, comic Italian operas written for a smaller orchestra and a few incredible voices. Champion singers of opera buffa can execute Donizetti's extravagant coloratura, decorating a word or a syllable with dozens of quick notes, each with its own identity but the whole adding up to much more than the sum of its parts. And they must also be good at performing the fast-paced patter singing, bouncing accurately through words at lightning-speed, something akin to reciting tongue-twisters, so characteristic of these operas. But switching over to the French opéra comique genre compelled Donizetti to learn a few new musical tricks.

Contemporary cartoonist's rendition of Donizetti's sextet from Lucia. Italian opera was all about the voice.

There was no dialogue whatsoever in Italian opera; if composers needed to get through a lot of plot, and a lot of text, very quickly, they wrote recitative, chatty music without much melody. But at the Opéra Comique, Donizetti couldn't use recitatives to tell his story; La fille du régiment uses dialogue instead. (Much of the dialogue is typically cut or revised nowadays when the opera is performed in the original language but outside of France; Seattle Opera's production features abridged dialogues in French.)

Donizetti had to write couplets for the main characters, a form of two-verse aria peculiar to opéra comique in which the chorus chimes in with a catchy refrain at the end of each verse. Accustomed as he was to writing for extremely accomplished singers, Donizetti made these couplets much more challenging, technically, than was usually the case in opéra comique. And they're much more impressive, too—sopranos love to show off with Marie's "Chacun le sait," and Tonio's ecstatic "À mes amis" makes a great calling-card aria for a tenor who can pull it off. Donizetti's own musical signature is the "tear in the smile," music of darkness or sorrow in a comic context. You'll hear it in the farewell Marie sings when she leaves the regiment to become a lady at the end of Act One, and in Tonio's beautiful romanza at the end of Act Two.

Donizetti also employed familiar, popular musical forms of the day in the service of telling his story. The prayer to the Virgin Mary in the first scene has multiple functions: it reminded Donizetti's French and Italian Catholic audience of music they might have heard in church, pulling them into the show; it announces the heroine's name and condition ("Vierge Marie!") before she comes onstage; and it makes a strong contrast to all the miltary music, the marches and flag-waving anthems and battlefield cries of "Rataplan! Rataplan! Rataplan!" that will dominate this opera. And the humorous scene that begins Act Two, in which Marie experiences a musical tug-of-war between the dreary chanson the Marquise has asked her to sing and the lively barrack-room ballad Sulpice wants to hear, tells the story of the opera in strictly musical terms.

Recommended Recordings:

Decca / Conductor: Richard Bonynge
Marie: Joan Sutherland
Tonio: Luciano Pavarotti

Sony Classical / Conductor: Gennaro Papi
Marie: Lily Pons
Tonio: Raoul Jobin

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