Opera is rarely laugh-out-loud funny; nor is it as consistently witty, as stylish, as quirkily captivating as Laurent Pelly’s staging of Donizetti’s Tyrolean romp, first seen in 2007 and now revived with pretty much its entire original cast once again firing on all cylinders.
In the case of Covent Garden darling Juan Diego Florez the volleys of top Cs seem to be what Royal Opera audiences have been waiting for all season as an opportunity to clear their lungs and stretch their legs. But it is his similarly pint-sized heroine Natalie Dessay who turns in the once-in-a-lifetime comic performance as vivandiere Marie – the regimental “daughter” of the title.
From the moment she first twangs her braces (just imagine Joan Sutherland doing that) this diminutive, flat-chested, foul-mouthed firebrand – a cross between Annie Oakley and Calamity Janes, only French – more or less single-handedly dictates the pace and energy of the show. The regiment love her because being one of the boys doesn’t preclude her from dashing away with the smoothing iron on their undershirts and long-johns. Rarely on the operatic stage has so much ironing been accompanied by no many notes. The joy of Dessay in this role is the way speech and song become inseparable, the way the coloratura punctuates the business and drop-dead timing unfailingly lands the gag and the laugh. There are, though, it must be said, worrying vocal problems, more pronounced since her first outing in the role: notably some degree of occlusion and occasional drop-outs in the softer more reflective numbers. They matter less in a ball-breaking characterisation like this, but it would be a shame if they compromised her in less forgiving roles – because she’s a real star and a great comedienne.
Speaking of which, Dawn French is back as La Duchesse de Crackentorp terrorising the language that named her so aptly and affecting the perfect foil to the haughty extravagance of Ann Murray’s ripely spoken Marquise de Berkenfeld whom she loudly reproaches for being “stingy with the chocolate fountains” (surtitled in French, of course). Indeed one might imagine a chocolate flake completing French’s increasingly elaborately wigs.
And Florez’ Tonio? Well, he stops the show twice, firstly with those buttock-clenching high Cs, but again more memorably when he sings for the hand of his true love in tender covered sound which shows just how elegant and heartfelt his artistry can be. A treat.