Diva Opera – La Fille du Regiment

La Fille du Regiment
– opera in two acts to a libretto by J.H Vernoy de Saint-Georges and F. Bayard

Diva Opera
Music Director and piano: Bryan Evans

Marie – Christine Buffle
Sulpice – Anthony Marber
Tonio – Cameron Rolls
Marquise de Birkenfeld – Rebecca Gale
Hortensius – Noel Mann
Corporal – Daniel Howard
Duchesse de Crakenthorp – Dominique Thiebaud
Soldiers – Richard Ireland,Adam Mackenzie, Christopher Bull
Villagers – Kerry Gill, Catrin Johnsson

Director – Wayne Morris
Designer – Rose Chandler
Stage Manager – Matthew Muller
Deputy Stage Manager – James Bartrum
Wardrobe Supervisors – Rebecca Dawe & Sophie Smith
French coach – Fiona Murray

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 June, 2001
Venue: Stationers’ Hall, Ave Maria Lane, London

Diva Opera – good singers, a piano in place of an orchestra; add costumes and a couple of props and you’ve got a show. This small company – a mix of regular singers and those engaged for particular roles, some with international experience and those with promising careers ahead of them – have several current productions and an extensive list of home-and-abroad engagements. This season there’s a couple of Dons (Giovanni and Pasquale), Trial by Jury and The Tales of Hoffmann – in London, Dorset, Basingstoke, France, Switzerland and Greece. 2002’s repertoire includes Carmen and Cosi fan tutte.

The Stationers’ Hall – in the City of London – is impressive in its historic atmosphere and baronial splendour. Two or three rows of chairs in a stretched circle (an audience of 250-300 at a guess) – broken by the piano – enclose the ’stage’ area; for La Fille, a farmyard trolley (Act 1) and a table (Act 2) – that’s it. Minimal, yes, but the costumes are finely crafted, movement is well choreographed, the acting is good and there’s a real sense of ensemble; there’s plenty of energy and commitment too.

There’s something rather intimidating about being so close to the performers – we’re effectively sharing the same space, which also heightens the immediacy of it all.

A couple of observations. Commendably sung in the original French, I wonder, on the basis that a good tune will look after itself whatever the language (and Donizetti wrote his fair share), if the dialogue (albeit there’s not a great deal) might have been offered in English; I appreciate that Diva is as an international troupe.

More importantly, there was the continual question of how much attention the singers had paid to the acoustic when rehearsing. La Fille is an intimate opera – musically as light as a soufflé; the Stationers’ Hall has a very lively, fulsome acoustic that adds both volume and body to voices. None of the singers seemed to appreciate that their full-out projection – fine at Covent Garden or The Coliseum – was far too much here. In ensemble numbers, or when Christine Buffle was giving it ’big’, the amassed sonority had a lacerating quality that would have stripped paint; fortunately there was plenty of stage-movement, so everybody got an ear-bashing.

That though is my only real criticism, for within Diva Opera’s modest and unpretentious remit, there was much to admire.

Donizetti, Italian born and died (1797-1848), had great success in Paris with French versions of his earlier operas; in 1840 he produced La Fille to a French libretto. Simple story: Marie is an abandoned baby the regiment has adopted – she makes their tea and is duty-bound to marry one of the soldiers. That’s hard lines on peasant Tonio who came to her rescue when she had some difficulties with the mountain terrain. They’re in love. He’s lurking outside the camp and is arrested as a spy. Enter the Marquise – Marie, it turns out, is the long-lost daughter of her sister. While auntie is taking Marie to a new life, Tonio has been drafted into the ranks … too late of course. Never mind, within an hour, he’s a sub-lieutenant, has found auntie’s chateau and discovered the Marquise never had a sister – Marie is her daughter – and claims Marie’s hand before an ’arranged marriage’ has been contracted. Fin.

Although a piano is inevitably a poor replacement for an orchestra (Donizetti’s militaristic side drum was honoured), Bryan Evans’s heroic playing deserves special mention. His was both a supportive and vital role, which he realised with sensitivity and coherence.

Not having a conductor emphasised that Donizetti wrote singers’ operas; the company seized the initiative and worked superbly as a team – all have good voices, all performed with eagerness, assurance and dynamism, and offered well-characterised portrayals. Leaving aside the soldiers’ dodgy moustaches – straight from the ’Allo ’Allo wardrobe, which amused me at any rate – it’s obvious that Diva Opera sets and maintains professional standards.

Christine Buffle is an infectious singing-actress who is joyfully irrepressible – she just avoids charges of over-doing it though with her Callas-like emotional commitment. More importantly, she has yet to cultivate a true legato line – crucial in ’bel canto’ singing – for although she has a lovely voice as such, the screech on her top register and in fortissimo (fine for Queen of the Night), and the inconsistencies of tone within that elusive curved phrase, need to be addressed.

Cameron Rolls’s Tonio was sympathetic if ’nasal’ in tone, likeable if somewhat restricted. Anthony Marber did very well as a late replacement (for Deryck Hamon) as Sulpice; his vocal subtlety and natural acting a good model. Rebecca Gale’s assumption of the haughty, then compassionate, Marquise was nicely done; her piano-accompanying (Mr Evans temporarily given the heave-ho) for Marie’s song-learning belonged to the Les Dawson school of digitation.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening; I hope to catch a Diva Opera presentation again.

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