Donizetti: La fille du régiment

Korn/Ferry Opera Holland Park

Kensington, London, 7 June 2008 4 stars

Hye-Youn Lee It says a great deal for the quality and sheer exuberance of Opera Holland Park's new production of La fille du régiment that it suffers little from comparison with Covent Garden's big-budget, big-star production of last year. After the poor weather of the season's first night, the sun was shining and in William Kerley's intelligent and economical production, Donizetti's comedy fizzed along beautifully, funny and touching by turns.

Initially, in Tom Rogers' designs, the stage is dominated by three different sized triangles: an abstract representation, one assumes, of Act One's 'Tyrolean mountains'. As the act gets underway, these triangles are halved and shifted about to create a fluid set. One segment contains a statue of the Virgin Mary which is the focus of the chorus' prayers at first, then revealed to contain beer for the victory celebrations. Other segments contain props for later in the act: tables and benches for the soldiers, an oven for a bun-baking routine that accompanies Marie and Tonio's first duet; they are also handy for draping tricolours in the 'salut à la France' chorus. Necessarily the Second Act calls for a few extra props, but the staging still retains a feeling of fluid economy. In contrast to season's opening production of Il trovatore, the cast and chorus are expertly directed. There is no shortage of clowning about but it is slickly planned and executed and Mandy Demetriou's choreography is taut, flirting with but never crossing the line into excessive camp.

Despite all the high spirits, there's nothing frivolous about the very serious demands the opera makes of its leading pair. Hye-Youn Lee, making her OHP debut, was little short of a revelation. It was immediately clear that her voice is an instrument of quality: smooth and creamy up and down the range, clearly and crisply produced. Her coloratura was delivered with applomb but she was also touching in her exquisitely sung Second Act aria. Some may complain that the voice itself lacks character, but it's a pleasure to hear this tortuous role negotiated with such style and ease. And although some of her dialogue failed to come across, her excellent acting more than made up for it; her scene with Marquise de Berkenfeld at the piano, was an undoubted comic highlight of the evening.

For a long time, this opera was known mainly for containing one of the most taxing tenor arias in the bel canto repertoire. On this occasion, it seemed as though Brazilian tenor Luciano Botelho's nerves got the better of him. He's set to cover Juan Diego Florez for the Royal Opera's production of of Matilde di Shabran next season and has a lot of the Peruvian tenor's engaging stage manner. He also has a beautiful voice - sweet and with a very slight, fluttery vibrato – and sang for much of the first act with pleasing stylishness, hitting his high notes with ease. However, as soon as we got to 'Ah! Mes amis', he seemed to tense up: he paused before the first of the nine top Cs and teetered precariously on the last; the intervening attempts to hit the note were as nerve-wracking for the audience as they evidently were for him. It was a shame, because he also acted well throughout and although tiredness crept in a little, gave a beautiful rendition of 'Pour me rapprocher de Marie' in the second act.

Sarah Pring, as the Marquise de Berkenfeld, was the pick of the supporting cast, wonderfully pompous but ultimately human, she was particularly fine in delivering her extensive dialogue naturally and idiomatically. Graeme Broadbent's preening and mischievous Sulpice also gave consistent enjoyment, performed with a light comic touch. The other parts were all well taken and it was a relief to have Nuala Willis's gloriously conceited duchesse de Crankentorp avoid the kind of scene-stealing shenanigans that Dawn French indulged in at Covent Garden.

After an account of the overture that was not ideally tidy, Robert Dean elicited some lively and alert playing from the orchestra. Although happy to give his singers time when they needed it, he kept the score skipping along nicely, and there was some excellent solo work from the woodwind and principal cello in particular. The chorus, evidently enjoying themselves immensely, sang, pranced and acted with gusto.

In all, this is an immensely enjoyable production: well-rehearsed, often extremely funny and with some genuine vocal fireworks. As nerves settle, it has the potential to get even better. Well worth catching.

By Hugo Shirley

Last year at Holland Park:
L'amore dei tre Re
La traviata
Il barbiere di Siviglia