Fille DessayOne of the nicest things about the Met’s production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment is that although it features two of the biggest names in opera, Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, the show feels like an ensemble piece. The opera is the ideal vehicle for Dessay and Flórez to shine their brightest, but in the HD telecast on April 26, the entire cast, down to chorus and the smallest roles, contributed to the sizzle and the general level of excellence. And best of all, everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Conductor Marco Armiliato set the tone at the beginning of the overture, beaming with excitement and winking playfully at the orchestra, which played throughout with a lightness and crispness perfectly suited to the opera. Director Laurent Pelly uses every resource at his disposal to make the opera the laugh-aloud comedy it can be, and what resources he has! The cast is full of singers with a real gift for comedy and Pelly takes full advantage of their natural abilities.

Fille SeldesEven in the smaller roles, such as Hortensius (Donald Maxwell) and the Notary (Jack Wetherall), the performers were completely successful as comedians. The actress Marian Seldes was a truly formidable Duchess of Krakenthorp, apparently a member of the British rather continental aristocracy, because she would frequently lapse into English and her French was decidedly mediocre. Seldes’ imperious portrayal of the humorless Duchess provided some of the performance’s most sublime silliness. Felicity Palmer as the Marquise de Berkenfield and Alessandro Corbelli as Sulpice took roles that can easily turn into caricature and underplayed them beautifully, making them all the more hilarious. Palmer gave the Marquise real depth as well; she made you believe that she truly had Marie’s best interests in mind in rejecting the pleas of a common soldier, and trying to marry her into a noble family. Her vulnerability, and the love for Marie she conveyed made it entirely plausible when she was revealed as Marie’s mother; it’s possible to imagine these two, despite the differences in their circumstances, as kindred spirits -- kind and generous, with romantic dispositions.

Flórez’s Tonio was also subtly underplayed. His humor came across not so much in the physicality of his acting (although it was also there), as in his wonderfully expressive voice and face. He was a model of youthful passion, with a believable emotional transparency in both his moments of joy and in his earnest declarations of love. Director Pelly has made Marie into the regiment’s cook, laundress, and general caregiver, all tasks that she performs without apparent resentment, and with perky good humor. Physical comedy obviously comes naturally to Dessay, who was a complete charmer as Marie, and she also, like Flórez, acts marvelously with her voice. Occasionally the stage business that Pelly gave her crossed the line into awkward slapstick, but those moments were rare.

Fille finaleSo what about the singing? During a giddy intermission interview by Susan Graham with Flórez and Dessay, Dessay said that she loved this production because its physicality made her forget about the singing, and it’s clear what she meant, even from the perspective of the audience; this is such a good show that the singing is not always the primary thing you’re appreciating. That’s not to deny the many moments where the singing was so spectacular that it was clearly the Main Event, but the drama was so engaging and funny, and the characters so compelling and sympathetic that it made for a fully integrated theatrical and musical experience. That being said, it couldn’t have been the experience it was without the consistently fine singing from all the cast. Dessay and Flórez get the bulk of opportunities to dazzle, and they certainly did. Flórez sang his showstopper, “Ah mes amis,” with effortless bravura, and with open, full, clarion tone. He brought passion and intensity and a gorgeous warmth to his second act plea to the Marquise, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie.” Everything Dessay sang sounded spontaneous and authentic; her voice was a marvel of clarity and expressiveness, and her coloratura was immaculate, secure, and thrillingly free.

The production, which was shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Weiner Staatsoper, is a real delight, and sets a standard for making operatic comedies genuinely fun.

The Met's next HD telecast will be an encore presentation of La Boheme, shown Wednesday, May 14, at 6:30 pm.