La fille du régiment is a French comic opera in three acts, with a libretto by Jules de Saint-Georges and Jean Francois Bayard. It is one of the more important operas by Donizetti composed for the French stage. The work premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique on February 11, 1840. Among the most popular of Donizetti's works, it nearly failed at its premiere due to organized hostility from other composers. Berlioz reviewed the opening night and offered damning criticisms of the score. He called the opera a pastiche of earlier works, insinuated that the music had been borrowed from another opera by another composer, Adam, and offered the blanket opinion that the entire opera lacked any new ideas whatsoever. Donizetti, he averred, was preparing a total of seven different operas for various theaters around Paris, and all in one year, so he probably had not given much thought to the music of La fille du régiment. He was treating the French public "cavalierly." Donizetti was quick to respond to his colleague's criticisms, and the opera eventually had a successful first run. It was performed a total of 44 times at the Opéra-Comique in 1840 and was then revived often over the rest of the century. An Italian version was prepared by Donizetti and the librettist Calisto Bassi, and was premiered at the Teatro alla Scala of Milan later that same year. Although the plot is dreadfully simple, the music sparkles and shines, and the characters of the story are sympathetic.
In La fille du régiment, Donizetti combined military band music and actual songs of the 21st French regiment with sentimental arias and ensembles full of elegant, graceful melody. The opera takes place around the year 1815, when the French occupied the Tyrol area; the heroine of the title, Marie, is the manager of a military canteen for the regiment., in love with a local peasant named Tonio who is suspected of being a spy. The soldiers gallantly treat her as a "daughter of the regiment." Newly established in Paris, Donizetti cannily presented the French with an opera calculated to appeal to his hosts, involving kindly French soldiers, plenty of patriotic moments, and flag-waving scenes, and, of course,l'amour. The soldier's chorus "Rataplan, Rataplan," in praise of the glory of victory, and the final aria, "Salut à la France," gave Parisians their chance to relive some of France's better military moments. In Marie and Sulpice's opening number, the vocal lines imitate military bugle calls and drum rolls, and the orchestration is brilliant and lively. Marie's stature as the "daughter" of the regiment is reinforced through the robustness of her music and youthful vivacity of her character. Choruses of soldiers combine with love scenes and songs based on dance rhythms to produce a lively tableaux throughout.
The work has much in common with one of Donizetti's other great comedies, L'elisir d'amore. Each features comic military music, a continuous flow of melody, and most of all, a sparingly but beautifully used element of pathos (consider Marie's "Il faut partir" in Act I and Tonio's "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" in Act II). Aside from an opportunity for touchingly heartfelt music, this dimension of human emotion highlights the comedy as well as making the ending seem that much happier. Donizetti also added parody to the comedy; in Marie's singing lesson, he pokes fun at overly affected vocal display and excessive sentimentality, and his combination of the ribald (for those days) regimental song with wild coloratura more associated with romantic outbursts also pokes fun at bel canto convention.
The work remains an operatic standard. During times of war, various patriotic tunes (and the uniforms of various armies) have been interpolated into the music.