Evenings like these leave me pondering eternal questions, such as: what is opera, and why do I spend such an inordinate percentage of my meager income attending it? Why is Aida an opera and South Pacific a Broadway musical? Should anyone bother seeing an ancient masterpiece such as The Marriage of Figaro anymore, and if so, more than once, particularly when contemporary performance masterpieces can be seen every week at BAM and dozens of other venues in our small corner of the world alone?
Of course there is the matter of taste. The world is a big beautiful place, and a single lifetime is not sufficient to sample all its fruits, so one must choose. Yet I have long been comfortable in my conviction that during the short centuries of the great operatic tradition, the greatest musical artists of their time strove mightily and passionately to produce deep, rich and mutlifaceted works of timeless beauty that require equally talented musicians to continually relearn and reinterpret them.
But where in this tradition is one to locate a brief, harmless banality such as Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment? It is a lighthearted tale of a group of well-scrubbed, fun-loving soldiers of Napoleon's fun-loving army who adopt a nubile peasant virgin and treat her...like their daughter?!...playing pattycake with each other as Marie marches around singing the regimental theme song. A traveling noblewoman reveals that the girl is her own illegitimate offspring and takes her into her chateau, where everyone is so impressed by her spunk and filial devotion that she is allowed to retain both her title and Tonio, her bumpkin boyfriend. All the while, the action is kept humming along by a series of easy, hummable melodies.
The piece was written in 1840 for the Opéra-Comique in a Paris awaiting both the return of Bonaparte's bones and, in the person of Louis-Napoleon, his empire. It is quite understandable in that milieu that it would be a tremendous popular success, and Marie's "Salut à la France" number one on the pop charts. Yet one wonders why the Met is staging it now, and why, while Placido Domingo is snarling in Otello and surmounting the challenges of Wagnerian heldentenors, Luciano Pavarotti is headlining the cast.
One answer is that Tonio is given a spectacular aria near the close of the first act in which he rockets to eight high Cs. Twenty-five years ago Pavarotti astounded the opera world by tossing these off with an unheardof facility and ardor, and, presumably, he wanted to prove that at the age of sixty he's still got it. This was an unfortunate aspiration. First of all, what does Pavarotti have to prove to anybody? Second, no matter how strong or well preserved a voice, it physically cannot do after decades of wear and tear what it could do before all that strain. The latter was lost on neither conductor Edoardo Müller nor on Mr Pavarotti himself, who agreed to transpose the entire piece downward a half-step to begin with. At the season premiere on November 4, Pavarotti, suffering from a cold, bailed out of the extra octaves and surrendered Marie to his understudy for act 2. Two and a half weeks later, the performance I attended began with management asking indulgence for the tenor, who was continuing to sing through his cold. And his aria, having already lost sparkle due to the transposition, was enormously cautious and labored. Witnessing such a unique artist receiving an A for effort was underwhelming, to say the least.
Also underwhelming were certain aspects of the production. Having Mr Pavarotti wear knee-high boots and tight pants under a Tyrolean tunic was simply cruel, for him and the audience. Although the Marquise took her long lost daughter into her home, she apparently would not let her near the finer sections of the wardrobe. At "Il faut partir," Marie's farewell song to her beloved regiment, the chorus bows and the lights dim and I expected the prompter's box to turn around and reveal a sign that read, "be sad now." And while the Met is renowned for the detailed attention paid to the sets and will usually put real musicians in costume when music is part of the dramatic action, the string trio in the Marquise's salon was not only faked, but short four strings on the cello.
Nevertheless, there is always magic when Pavarotti sings, and when he wasn't struggling with music written for a twenty-year-old he demonstrated once again the best set of pipes owned by a living human being. At his entrance almost midway through the first act, his first words, in dialogue, pealed off the stage in breathless clarity. The love duet with Marie, accompanied by some of Donizetti's finer orchestration, was gorgeous. And the act 2 aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" was sublimeperfection itself.
Another reason to stage this opera is for the role of Marie. The soprano is on stage for virtually the entire show, and while she will never make history in the part, she can let it all out and strut her stuff to her heart's content. June Anderson was ideal. Although it is difficult for anyone to sound truly special next to Mr Pavarotti, she more than held her own. Best of all, the obvious fun she was having grew more and more infectious as the short evening rolled to its happy conclusion.
And after all, opera can be fun, too.