La Fille du regiment: Donizetti’s salut à la France

Article by Katherine Camiller

To say Gaetano Donizetti was a prolific composer would be like describing Napoleon Bonaparte as a man of modest ambition.  During his career, Donizetti composed a staggering seventy-five operas.  However, a series of tragic events in the mid-1830s severely knocked the Bergamo-born composer’s stamina; in 1836, his parents died and his wife Virginia gave birth to a stillborn child.  In 1837, their next child died within hours of being born and Virginia died just days later.  It’s no wonder that by 1838, the 41-year-old composer was ready to throw in the towel.  In a letter to his teacher Johann Simon Mayr dated May 1838, Donizetti described how: ‘I am sad and feel it heavily upon me.  I am grey and weary of working to the extent that I am looking for a way of retiring’.

Enter Rossini.  In 1824, this industrious Italian had moved to Paris, the nineteenth-century opera capital of the world, and had made a real name (and a few francs) for himself.  Italian opera was already becoming increasingly popular in France, as demonstrated by opera houses such as the Théâtre-Italien, of which Rossini was appointed director.  Before long, a new post was created for him at the Paris Opéra of Premier compositeur du roi and inspecteur général du chant en France.  Having admired Rossini’s success in France from across the border, Donizetti decided to follow in his footsteps and make the break for Paris in an attempt to earn enough money to retire.  Although the path had been well-prepared by Rossini, Donizetti would still have to pull out all the stops in order to secure his success in France.  What better way to ingratiate himself with the locals than by teaming up with French librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy De Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard and composing an opera with more French allusions than you can shake an épée at: La Fille du régiment. At first glance, the general plot of La Fille du régiment seems pretty conventional as far as comic opera plots go – boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, circumstances beyond their control prevent boy and girl from being together, boy and girl overcome obstacles and everyone lives happily ever after.  But it is the backdrop against which this story is set that most overtly reveals Donizetti’s intentions for this piece and his understanding of the popularity of nationalistic imagery in France.

From the Revolution of 1789 in France, it was the arts that provided a medium for the embodiment and nourishment of revolutionary (and nationalistic) values, resulting in the flourishing of opera.  Political operas therefore became an established tradition, which Donizetti would contribute to with his La Fille du régiment.  The opera is set in the Tyrolean Alps, where the heroic French army (the 21st regiment) have come to restore peace.  Plenty of opportunity for French nationalistic fervour here.  In fact, this regiment even has a song, ‘Chacun le sait’, describing the power and greatness of the regiment, and by extension France itself: ‘Everyone knows it / Everyone says it / This regiment reigns above the rest / No one is given as much credit in all the taverns of France.  / This regiment / Across the country / Brings terror to lovers and husbands.  / But with a supreme elegance!’.  However, it is the singer of this patriotic song that deserves most attention, as it is this character that helps to flavour the opera with truly French ingredients.

Let us meet Marie.  Naturally, she’s a virginal beauty (Sergeant Sulpice constantly refers to Marie’s beauty and loyalty as a daughter), but there’s little else about our heroine that reveals much femininity – not surprising, seeing as Marie has been brought up by the soldiers of the regiment.  No quietly embroidering in the corner for this young lady – instead, Marie loves nothing more than to get her hands dirty and do her bit alongside her ‘father’ soldiers for the good of her beloved country, France.  She sings in Act One: ‘I have courage like a soldier!  Each day, I am woken by the sound of battle.  Above all, I prefer the sound of the drum.  I march fearlessly for glory.  France and victory is my refrain!’.

The image of the soldier heroine is one common in French history.  Marie’s soldier-like lifestyle is surely modelled on two great figures in French history: Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic, and Joan of Arc, patron saint of France, while her purity and innocence is linked with the Virgin Mary.  Marianne is a mythical fighting peasant girl originally invented to give physical expression to the spirit of the Revolution and revived in the nineteenth century as a result of the ongoing political upheaval.  She represents the three central values of the French Republic: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  Joan of Arc became a national heroine and patron saint of France following her death in 1431.  Born in 1412, by the age of 12 she began hearing voices, which she believed were sent by God, telling her of her divine mission to free her country from the English and help the Dauphin gain the French throne.  In order to do so, she would have to dress in a man’s uniform and fight in battle alongside the other soldiers.  Thirdly, through emphasis of her virginity and purity, Marie is presented as a Virgin Mary figure.  Marie’s association with the Virgin Mary is particularly appropriate in the story of a soldier girl and her regiment sent to the Tyrol region to protect the people from foreign invasion, as one of the Virgin Mary’s principal roles is that of guardian.  When Marie is about to be whisked off by the Marquise to her chateau, the chorus exclaim: ‘Oh sorrow! What a shock! Marie is leaving… She was always near us in battle, this child is the guardian angel of our regiment!’.  Marie therefore appears to be a clever combination of this group of three of France’s most important female figures.  At the same time, these associations also result in a combination of political, national and religious aspects – all of which were particularly topical at the time of the premiere of La Fille du régiment.

Marie represents a continuation of an ancestry of French representations of woman, while at the same time being very distinctly a child of her time. Our protagonist also belongs to a tradition of soldier heroines in the arts, inspired, it would seem, by a common theme: woman as allegory of Nation.  There are a number of examples of the portrayal of the Marianne figure in literature and painting around the time of the premiere of La Fille du régiment.  Take, for example, Honoré de Balzac’s novella Adieu (1831), from his Philosophical Writings.  This work, set in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, centres around the once beautiful and noble Comtesse de Vandière, who was driven mad after following her husband and the French troops during the Napoleonic campaigns in Russia.  Also in 1831, the revolutionary Eugène Delacroix painted his highly influential Liberty Leading the People, which portrays a Marie-like soldier heroine and further illustrates the popularity of the image of the Marianne figure during this period: Delacroix’s painting was executed in order to commemorate the July Revolution on 28 July 1830, which saw the overthrow of the Bourbon king by the people and the succession of Louis-Philippe to the French throne.  The work glorifies the image of Liberty, represented by the allegorical central female figure, who is depicted wearing the Phrygian cap of liberty and wielding the French flag in one hand and a gun in the other.

With the plot and characters taken care of, Donizetti had to perfect a French style of composing the music itself in order to ensure the success of this opera in France.  The extent to which he altered his usual Italianate approach to operatic writing is most clearly seen by pointing out the changes he made in order to meet the demands of the Italian opera buffa traditions for its premiere back home eight months after the French.  The most apparent alteration is the adaptation of spoken dialogue to recitative for its Italian equivalent, La figlia del reggimento.  Sections of dialogue were also cut so that the dialogue scenes would not be unnecessarily long when set to music, as recitative is more time-consuming than spoken dialogue.  In addition to this, Donizetti removed the Marquise’s unmistakably French strophic-form couplets ‘Pour une femme de mon nom’ from the beginning of Act One.  The closing chorus and reprise of ‘Salut à la France’ in Act 2 was also replaced with a duet for Marie and Tonio: ‘In questo sen riposati’, in keeping with the opera buffa tradition of making the soloists (and the plight of the two lovers in particular) central to the opera rather than the chorus (and in this case French nationalism) of opéra comique, as in La Fille du régiment.  Another significant modification surrounds Tonio’s famous cavatina ‘Ah mes amis quel jour de fête’ towards the end of Act One of La Fille du régiment, which was abridged by removing the cabaletta (including the famous succession of high Cs, which were considered inappropriate for the Italian stage), and his Act Two romance ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ was omitted completely, most likely owing to its intimate, sentimental character, which would have been ill-matched to the more extrovert tastes of the Italian opera buffa audiences.  To make up for this loss of material, Tonio is given an aria di sortita after Marie’s and Sulpice’s duet: ‘Feste? Pompe? Omaggi? Onori?’, which Donizetti borrowed from his semiseria opera Gianni di Calais of 1828.

So how was Donizetti’s French project received?  Reviews following the premiere were mixed – the most famous attack coming from French composer Hector Berlioz, who claimed that the opera was merely a re-working of Adolph Adam’s Le Chalet.  However, given the subsequent success of the piece in Paris following its premiere, it is most likely that these negative responses were fuelled more by xenophobic feelings towards the Italian than anything else – particularly in the case of Berlioz, whose comments reveal his bitterness towards the composer’s success in the opera houses at which he had struggled to make a name for himself.  With his popularity now set in Paris, Donizetti went on to further contribute to his retirement fund by composing what would be his last few operas and revising older works, but sadly was never able to enjoy his retirement.  By 1843, Donizetti began to show signs of syphilis and what is now known as bipolar disorder, and was institutionalised in 1845.  His death came three years later.  Donizetti may not have fully reaped the rewards of his success during his lifetime, but by 1914, La Fille du régiment had been performed over 1,000 times at the Opéra-Comique, and the Act Two cabaletta ‘Salut à la France’ became the unofficial national anthem during the Second Empire.  Not bad for a man born in Bergamo.  

Katharine Camiller is Associate Producer for Korn/Ferry Opera Holland Park and Producer for La Fille du régiment.