26 February 2014 at 12.17pm | 3 Comments
The astoundingly virtuoso role of Tonio in Donizetti's full-of-beans comedy La Fille du régiment is probably best known for the Act I aria 'Ah, mes amis', where the tenor must successfully navigate the high Cs of Donizetti's devilishly difficult vocal line.
But there's a lot more to Tonio than operatic acrobatics. In Act II he holds one of the opera's few moments of profound emotion with 'Pour me rapprocher Marie', an exquisite aria of ardent lyricism – which, admittedly, does also have its fair share of vocal mountains to scale.
Tonio makes a heartfelt declaration of love to Marie, the eponymous fille, while pleading with her newly discovered 'aunt' the Marquise de Berkenfeld for Marie’s hand. The Marquise has whisked Marie away from the regiment in which she was reared in order to make a lady of her. Tonio describes how, just to be near Marie, he has already risked life and limb joining the regiment. He's hardly going to lose her now.
The aria, an island of calm in a sea of silliness, is shored up on either side by the spoken dialogue that was a crucial part of opéra comique (Carmen another key example of the genre). In the preceding dialogue the Marquise has burst in on Tonio, Marie and the regiment's sergeant Sulpice, reunited after Tonio has led the soldiers in stealthy infiltration of the Marquise's home. The Marquise demands to know who Tonio is, and, as he answers 'Écoutez-moi, de grâce' the orchestra starts up in the restrained-yet-ardent vein that characterizes this most dignified of pleas.
The aria is composed in modified couplets, essentially a simple, folksong-like structure modelled around a returning refrain. Much of the music is derived from the opening phrase, played first by the clarinets and bassoons in a simple and brief introduction. The phrase is made up of short-long short-long pairs that might have seemed hesitant were they not soaring confidently upwards – Donizetti immediately creating an impression of respectful determination coupled with gentle ardour.
Tonio begins to sing the couplet (the opening phrase and its answer), his voice ringing out against the spare accompaniment of the string section's rocking motion, so building a sense of intimacy. The only demonstrative gesture from the orchestra comes at the end of the first couplet, when a dolorous French horn croons two descending notes. It's so pointedly plaintive that it almost seems a wry comic hint: a reminder that we are in a comedy and everything, after all, will probably turn out all right.
Tonio sings three verses, each time returning to that opening line and adding further chromatic flourishes. The vocal range is continually expanded upwards, mounting an argument to which it would be difficult to say no (though the Marquise will manage).
At the beginning of the last verse there's a change of texture, the string accompaniment ratcheting up the tension with dry, off-beat semiquavers, quickening us towards a delicious cadenza with one of those famous high Cs.
The aria ends with a final statement of the couplet. The rocking accompaniment is now slowed down to give total control to the tenor, who ranges ever upwards with increasingly breathtaking vocal flourishes – ultimately topping the aria with a top D. The whole ending is astonishingly exposed, and demands a star tenor who not only has the high notes (a feat in itself) but can deliver them with glorious ease and beauty.
Donizetti cut this aria for the Italian premiere of La figlia del reggimento, eight months after Fille's Paris premiere. It's difficult to see why; with the right breed of tenor, the aria's stillness and radiant loveliness make it an undeniable highlight.
La Fille du régiment runs 3–18 March. Tickets are still available. The production is staged with generous support from Judith Portrait.