Opposites that Attract: Felicity Palmer on La Fille du Régiment and Kát’a Kabanová

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The celebrated mezzo Felicity Palmer discusses with Mansel Stimpson the two contrasted roles in which she is appearing this season at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Nothing could better define the range of Cheltenham-born Felicity Palmer than the two roles she is taking this season at Covent Garden. When we meet she is rehearsing La Fille du Régiment which opens this January, but come June Donizetti’s delightful lightweight piece gives way to one of the most intense dramas in the operatic repertoire, Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová (Katya Kabanova). That Felicity’s range is wide is, of course, evident from a glance at her CV: the composers whose works she has sung extend from Handel to Sondheim, from Verdi to Kurt Weill and from Wagner to Gilbert & Sullivan. Nevertheless the fact that she should be equally at home in the largely spoken comic role of the Marquise de Berkenfeld in the Donizetti piece and as the monstrously destructive mother-in-law of Kát’a proves conclusively her sheer versatility.

We speak first about the Donizetti, which is already in rehearsal. The role of the Marquise is one that Felicity has taken before, in San Francisco, but that production was rather different from this one. “It’s chalk and cheese. In America it was a very old production revamped by a staff producer. It did work – in fact they loved it, but this is on another level. We don’t have a huge amount of rehearsal time but under our director, Laurent Pelly, it’s so far up both in inventiveness and inspiration that it should be really wonderful if only we can bring it off.”

Talking about the piece itself, premiered in 1840, I suggest that, although operetta is usually regarded as having come in with Offenbach and others almost two decades later, this work with its lightly treated plot and spoken dialogue is already half-way between opera and operetta. “I think that’s right – it probably is somewhere between the two. My particular role provides virtually nothing to sing, but as for the main stars, well that’s grand opera. You’ve got to have singers who are top-notch: nothing less would do and we certainly have them here, fabulous singers without question.”

Felicity is referring to Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez and Alessandro Corbelli whose roles are very different from her own although it’s not easy for anybody. “With the immense amount of dialogue I have, the challenge for me, of course, is to be doing it in French, and that’s a whole other world. But I think we’re all put on the spot, even those with major things to sing. That’s because when you’re without the music imposing its bounds you are freed to do whatever you want with the text by way of delivery and it becomes like straight theatre. The way that Laurent is making me play the Marquise is such that he’s building her up into quite a big character and, of course, it does turn out that her story holds the key to the secret on which the piece eventually turns. So, although one can think of the role as a bit of a spit and a cough plus all this dialogue, in the end it’s very central to the whole caboodle. When I agreed to do it, I thought it would be nice and relaxing, but it isn’t like that at all – it’s a lot of work. But I’m glad about that actually because it stretches me.”

Before moving on to the Janáček, I discuss with Felicity one aspect of La Fille du Régiment, which could be problematic for directors today. Light though the piece deliberately is, it used to be performed regularly on Bastille Day in Paris because in Act One especially it comes across as a work intended to arouse a patriotic spirit. “I won’t spoil it for you by revealing how the Act Two finale with those cries of ‘Hurrah for France’ is being done, but Laurent wants to work against the patriotic Last Night of the Proms route: he feels that you can’t go there today. But if, overall, his approach is slightly tongue-in-cheek he nevertheless goes for real feelings, and the humour that he is finding is tasteful, imaginative and charming, never camp.”

Kát’a Kabanová is also an opera in which Felicity has appeared before, so she is able to describe from experience the role of Kabanicha which she will be portraying this summer. Ironically anyone who didn’t know the opera might think that this would be another comic part for Kabanicha fits the stereotype of the mother-in-law from hell. But here the hell becomes real: she dominates her weak son, behaves in a way that drives her daughter-in-law, Kát’a, into the arms of another man and is then ultimately blamed by her son for destroying his wife who has committed suicide. “I think she’s straight horror. I’ve done a lot of baddies and I try to discover something that’s sympathetic, but with her I find it pretty hard to find any redeeming features at all. But such women do exist and you wonder what has made them that way. People aren’t born that hateful, so why do they become like that? They are to be pitied, and I remember when I first did the role at Glyndebourne I surprised people when I walked off at the end because without thinking, without meaning to do it, I found myself saying ‘I didn’t mean to kill her: I didn’t mean to’.”

What these comments on both operas bring home is the fact that the feelings of the audience at the end, even if appreciative in both cases, could hardly be further apart. Bearing in mind that the Donizetti should send the audience out with a glow but that the Janáček should bring forth a deep emotional response, I ask Felicity if she as an artist experiences a different kind of satisfaction in these two contrasted endeavours. By way of reply she goes back a step to consider what the job of singing calls for whatever the nature of the work. “Our job through our voices is to communicate, and that’s so whether we’re conveying fun or instead expressing something as stark and terrible as the Ipswich murders that we’ve recently been hearing about. Life can be light-hearted of course but it can also be full of tragedy, and personally I believe that artists are given this great gift which at its best can leave those in the audience questioning something about life or about themselves.”

Finally, Felicity expands on these thoughts. “With La Fille I hope that the audience will go out saying ‘what a fabulous evening’ and also exclaiming ‘my God, those singers’. And I think they will, because Natalie, Juan Diego and Alessandro sing sensationally but they are also incredible communicators. With Kát’a, however, you are presented with life at its bleakest and with that dark side of humanity that is there for all of us. It may seem excessive, but not when you think of the horrendous news we are now faced with in the papers on a daily basis. But if Janáček confronts us with all that, the music itself is wonderful. Like the Strauss Elektra it’s taut with not a single note wasted. It’s not beautiful music as such, of course, despite containing wonderful phrases: instead it’s a direct and remarkable representation of the text. You might say that it’s case of music being the speech: it really is. If we didn’t have words in opera, it would just be vocalise, and we’d be flautists or whatever. Our vital dimension is provided by the words you hear, and if we don’t get that across both in the emotion and in the actual colouring of the words then we’ve failed because it’s our duty to do that. Furthermore, music is never over: there’s always something more to be found and learnt and if we stop learning then we’re done for. I do sometimes think that we can empty the opera house if we’re not communicating enough.”

  • The opening night of La Fille du Régiment is 11 January 2007 and the first night of Kát’a Kabanová is 19 June, both at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This
Skip to content