Natalie Dessay La Fille

The Royal Opera's new staging of La Fille du Régiment will probably go down in history as one of the company's great achievements. Few would rate Donizetti's Francophile comedy of army life and aristocratic bad manners as one of the greatest of operas. Yet it also has the reputation of being a tremendous vehicle for a star soprano and tenor. Laurent Pelly's production casts Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez as Marie and Tonio. Neither, one suspects, could ever be bettered.

Dessay, in particular, gives the performance of a lifetime. A remarkable theatrical animal, she acts as well as she sings. We first encounter her as a gamine tomboy in breeches and braces, letting fly volleys of coloratura, while she irons the regiment's shirts. Her wide-eyed attraction to Florez is touching and sincere. She and Pelly, however, get the work's momentary plunges into darkness exactly right; forced from the army into the posh world of the Marquise de Berkenfeld, her outbursts of resentment and hysteria are as painful as they are funny. Florez isn't quite her theatrical equal, though Pelly has carefully crafted his more conventional gestures into a portrait of considerable cogency. Vocally, he's immaculate, with the nine top Cs of his big aria perfectly placed.

You can't fault the rest of it, either. Bruno Campanella's conducting has great elegance and charm. Felicity Palmer's Marquise de Berkenfeld is the operatic equivalent of Edith Evans's Lady Bracknell, while the all-important speaking role of the battleaxe Duchesse de Crackentorp goes to Dawn French, who, generously and wisely, refuses to hog the limelight.

A truly outstanding night at Covent Garden, the like of which we haven't seen in ages.

· In rep until February 1: Box office: 020-7304 4000.

Comedy works best, one theory goes, when the people in it don’t know they are being funny. Another school favors a more Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) approach, in which the reasonable turns into the improbable, and the improbable into the outrageous. The Metropolitan Opera’s visually drab but industriously comic new production of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” represents theory No. 1 with touches of theory No. 2.

Laurent Pelly’s production updates Napoleonic warfare in the Tyrol to the time of World War I. Pains were taken to excise every bit of fluff and gold braid, anything that might remind us of the toy-soldier productions traditional to this ever-endearing piece. Maybe the idea is to clear away anything that obstructs the view of the Met’s marvelous principals.

As a full house at the Met awaited the sporting event of the evening, Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio, the aspiring lover from the mountains, delivered his famous string of high C’s in Act I and then, repeating the whole thing, nailed them again. The crowd, as they say, went wild. Less theatrical but perhaps more difficult were the restrained, drawn-out held notes he managed so well later in the evening.

Mr. Flórez is opera’s latest, best response to a category of tenor voice that predominated in 1840 but no longer exists. Donizetti’s tenor parts — requiring a different physical technique, lighter than the sound we are used to and benefiting from what were often drastically smaller opera houses — were also tuned lower. In other words, his B flat and our B flat are not the same.

Mr. Flórez offers a splendid metaphor for something that cannot be historically reproduced. His tone is slender but athletic. It has a ring and a resonance easily heard in a space the size of which Donizetti certainly did not plan on. Mr. Flórez is fluent in the ways of rapid-fire bel canto delivery, and he delivers simpler tunes winningly.

Natalie Dessay as Marie, the heroine of the title, asked us to consider a third theory of comedy: that people are funny when they behave like machines. Ms. Dessay will not be accused of stand-and-deliver opera. At one moment she is a flailing robot, with gauges set imprudently high and threatening meltdown. Yet (and this is crucial to her success) she fades instantly and easily from machine into something human: an extraordinarily busy kind of humanity, operating at jacked-up, silent-movie tempos.

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