Great, I thought. Comedy dancing peasants. After an overture indicating that the evening would contain a great deal of well-executed froth from the pit, before long the stage was full of lumpy-looking chorus members armed with pitchforks and wearing saucepans on their heads, doing an authentic Tyrolean version of the conga. There was also a Posh Lady, accompanied by her Butler, both staggering around, gesticulating and hamming as if their lives depended on it. I’ve never been much of a fan of pantomime, and at this point, frankly, was resigning myself to a wasted £12.50 and an hour or so of mild-to-moderate irritation. I should perhaps note here that during the interval my companion explained to me how cleverly they were spoofing the overacting cliches of comic theatre, but the problem is that when one has seen a great deal of unintentional poor acting and tiresome mugging in operas, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the ironic from the genuinely bad.
However, there was one thing that single-handedly lifted my spirits and my opinion of the production, and that was Natalie Dessay’s Marie. Looking like a teenage Pippi Longstocking (complete with wiry red pigtail), although she did the comedy overacting like everyone else, somehow she managed not to be irritating at all, but delightful and charming in every single scene. She and Sgt Pingot (Alessandro Corbelli) were an effective and even amusing double act, and carried off their regimental songs with gusto. Thus I was in a better mood to be entertained by the various sillinesses of the production – look, it’s all the soldiers underwear on a big washing line! Ho ho! And now she’s ironing pants while singing some fabulous acrobatic coloratura! Hee hee! The scene I enjoyed most from the opera was one where the humour was put on hold – Marie’s farewell to the regiment at the end of Act 1. Both Dessay and the cor anglais player (whose name, unfortunately, I don’t know) were stunning, blending plaintive emotion with balanced elegance of line. These few minutes were worth putting up with any amount of pants and pratfalls for.
Also mugging but landing (just) on the right side of the endearing/irritating divide was Juan Diego Florez as Tonio, boyish in lederhosen and knee socks. One of the few things that I did know about this opera in advance was that it contains an aria with nine high Cs in it (that’s 523 Hz each). I don’t have absolute pitch, so all I could tell was that in one number the dominant note of the scale was repeated frequently – and apparently effortlessly – but his expression of (rightful) pride in the achievement and the audience’s ecstatic applause gave it away. Although Florez’s voice isn’t the type ever to set my heart pounding, he is clearly extremely technically proficient in his repertoire, and his performance appeared to me pretty flawless. His finest moment was in his final aria, where he pleads for Marie’s hand for the last time, which had beauty and genuine pathos.
Ann Murray had a couple of chances to show off her rich lower register, but deserved more (and better) music to sing than the role of the Marquise de Berkenfield can provide. This production also featured a non-singing cameo by Dawn French, playing Dawn French (although the programme listed her as the Duchesse de Crackentorp). I believe I must have been having a sense of humour malfunction again, as a large portion of the audience seemed to find her very funny indeed.