La Fille du regiment, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London<br/>A Journey of the Soul: The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina, Barbican, London

A nearly perfect delight

Anna Picard
Sunday 21 January 2007 01:00

La Fille du régiment, Donizetti's touching comedy of aristocratic illegitimacy in the Tyrolean battlefields, was last seen at Covent Garden 40 years ago. Once a vehicle for Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, it is now a masterclass in pathos, comic timing, and charm. If the good news is that Laurent Pelly's new production is irresistible, the bad news is that we may have to wait another 40 years before seeing it again. After its London run, La Fille du régiment transfers to Vienna and New York. Juan Diego Flórez may reprise his role as Tonio, but as Natalie Dessay, the Marie without whom this Gallic confection would be unimaginable, has said that she tires of an opera after 30 performances, it would be unwise to wait for a revival.

Off stage, Flórez and Dessay would make an unlikely couple. On stage, scampering over the ravines of designer Chantal Thomas's artfully crumpled map and falling in love across the battle-lines, his uncomplicated Adonis is the ideal foil for her manic tomboy. Never has a woman of forty looked more like a Quentin Blake cartoon. Dessay pings her braces, pets her battalion of adoptive fathers, and "Bouf!"s and "Merde!"s her way through the mountains of military laundry, channelling the great comic heroines of children's literature, and making scintillating sense of Marie's idealism, her terrier loyalty, her despair, her wit and her music.

Instead of decoration or vapid technical display, Dessay's coloratura is a natural expression of Marie's exuberance. The voice itself is pale, delicate, a daisy to the rose and lilly of Gheorghiu or Fleming. But what she does with it is magic, whether in the high comedy of "Rataplan!" or the poignancy of "Par le rang et l'opulence". Meanwhile, Flórez matches her sincerity in his lyric serenades, delivers the famous row of high Cs with easy elegance, and triumphantly rescues his sweetheart in a WWI tank.

But for the scenes involving the Duchesse de Crackentorp (Dawn French), Pelly pitches a perfect balance between seriousness and screwball. French's comedic style is, no pun intended, a little too broad for an otherwise suave production, and is less assured than that of Felicity Palmer (Marquise de Berkenfeld), Donald Maxwell (Hortensius), and the magnificent Alessandro Corbelli (Sulpice). But this is the sole uncertainty in what is otherwise a dream ensemble. The male chorus sing, and dance, delightfully, while conductor Bruno Campanella draws a performance of great vivacity and tenderness from an audibly enthusiastic orchestra. A finer realisation of this delicate, clever, humane comedy is hard to imagine, so start queueing for returns.

The 20th BBC Composer Weekend, A Journey of the Soul: The Music of Sofia Gubaidulina, was a loud riposte to those offended by the absence of female composers from last year's Proms. The format is inherently risky. Few composers withstand such concentrated attention, yet still we troop to the annual saturation of live concerts, documentaries, and discussions. Why? Partly out of curiosity. Partly to support a bastion of Reithian ideals. Partly, I suspect, in tribute to Salavador Dali, who, when asked why he had placed a sharp stone in his mouth, answered that it felt good when he took it out.

If previous weekends have tested the endurance of the music, this one tested the endurance of the audience, though not by exposing them to artists whose speciality in contemporary music is a direct result of their inability to make a nice sound in mainstream repertoire. Unfortunately, the consistent excellence of the performances from the London Symphony Orchestra, The Royal String Quartet, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, only underlined the narrowness of Gubaidulina's imagination.

After decades of producing music for films, Gubaidulina has mastered affective instrumentation, conveying misery in knots of dyspeptic brass, and bliss in vertiginous planes of trilling strings and shimmering bells. But her weltanschauung is unremittingly dour. Pro et contra, the Nadeyka Triptych, The Light of the End, and even Offertorium all promote the same message: that this world is one of torment and travail, and the next is one of bliss. Fine. The texts of Bach's cantatas say much the same thing. But Gubaidulina says it in musical flash-cards, alternating three-minute sections of apocalyptic terror with three-minute sections of radiance, and a dash of glissandi - often in contrary motion - to distract the listener as she switches from one to the other.

It would be simplistic to attribute this didacticism to Gubaidulina's religion or nationality. Plenty of devout composers have offered a more nuanced view of humanity, and though Russia has produced some of the most depressive music in history, even Shostakovich leavened horror with humour, which Gubaidulina's music lacks. Though her third and fourth String Quartets are tentatively playful, Alleluia is as joylessly violent as a Day of Judgement fresco. After the final concert, giddy with visions of damnation, I slipped Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto into the CD player of my car, and drove home in state of deep gratitude to hear music that tells us that solace and joy can be found on this all-too-fallible earth. As to Dali, he may have painted some daft pictures but he was dead right about taking the stone out of one's mouth.

'La Fille du régiment' (020 7304 4000) to 1 Feb

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