La Fille du Regiment has too many "rata-tat-tat" marching choruses for it to be my favorite Donizetti comedy, but it has some magnificent bel canto pieces (like "Il faut partir") and some great comic moments (like the music lesson in Act II that requires the soprano playing Marie to purposefully sing off-key). This production succeeds on all levels.
The director cleverly sets the action in a French village in the final days of World War II, after the Germans have withdrawn. Marie is the daughter of an American army captain who has died, resulting in her being "adopted" by the entire regiment. Tonio is a young French villager whose love for Marie leads him to join the American ranks. The updated setting works well. The relationships among the characters feel even more authentic than in the opera's original Tyrolean setting, and the Act I and Act II sets invoke the historical period well - Act I taking place in a bar in the French village and Act II in the chateau of the Marquise who is determined to turn tomboy Marie into a refined woman.
Usually the soprano playing Marie (the fille du regiment) is the star of the show, but in this production, Patrizia Ciofi must share those honors with Juan Diego Florez who plays Tonio. Florez must be the best lyric tenor around today. His "Ah! mes amis" is worth the price of the DVD alone. He hits each of its famous nine high-C's with such precision, ease, and punch that I almost came out of my seat nine times! And then nine turns to 18 as he encores the piece. (And if 18 isn't enough for you, Florez performs excerpts from "Ah! mes amis" on the bonus DVD, treating us to his own commentary on each note prior to our seeing him sing it.)
Patrizia Ciofi has a beautiful lyric soprano voice that is incredibly strong given her slight build. She sings with precise attention to phrasing and just floats those high notes. Her voice blends well with Florez's, making their duets a delight. My only difficulty with Ciofi is that she lacks a certain ease onstage (this is true in the other performances I've seen her in: La Traviata and Lucie de Lammermoor). There may be nothing she can do about it, but I'm always aware of how hard she's working at singing (I can see it in her facial contortions). In a comic opera, this effort sometimes detracts from the comedy. Beverly Sills famously called the role of Marie, "Lucille Ball with high notes." There's no Lucille Ball in Ciofi's performance simply because she isn't relaxed enough to project that kind of screwball comedy. That said, Ciofi demonstrates that this opera need not rely on slapstick; using her dramatic abilities, Ciofi gets us to focus less on the comedy and more on Marie's relationship to the other characters: to her surrogate father (Sulpice), to her newfound "aunt" (the Marquise), and, of course, to her lover, Tonio. Ciofi offers stunning renditions of Marie's slow, poignant arias and is justly rewarded by the audience for her expressive, nuanced singing. Francesca Franci does a fine job as the Marquise, making her into a flesh and blood character. Nicola Ulivieri, with his full-bodied bass voice, sings and acts the part of Sulpice convincingly.
And then, as icing on the cake, there's that bonus DVD with several special features. One of them, "Backstage with La Fille" is brilliant. In it, the director takes 14 scenes from the opera and shows each one in rehearsal and then cuts to the scene in performance. It's instructive and fun. For example, we see Ciofi and Florez, in street clothes, rehearsing one of their Act I duets when the conductor suddenly stops the music and says something like, "Wait, wait. The orchestra is playing at one tempo, Patrizia is singing at another, and Juan Diego at yet another. Can we all please perform at the same speed?" Then the scene cuts to the performance where, of course, the orchestra and the two players perform the piece to perfection. There's another great rehearsal moment when, first Florez, and then Ciofi each sing their final note terribly off key; the two of them turn and give each other a priceless look, like they've just smelled rotten eggs.
This is a DVD (two DVD's actually) to treasure.