March 18, 2019: Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”

What happens when the Metropolitan Opera meets the Marx Brothers?Voila! You have the production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, broadcast live at the Hollywood 16 in Amarillo on March 2.

Rarely does high art coincide with a good belly laugh, but that’s precisely what happened at the Harrington Performance Hall – named for Amarillo’s Sybil B. Harrington – in NYC, and simulcast in HD.

Director Laurent Pelly, one of France’s most versatile, with a long list of credits, showed himself also a master of slapstick.

Pretty Yende, as Marie, and in contrast to tragic roles like Musetta in La Boheme, reveals herself as a consummate comedienne. Her masculine raunch, as one might expect from a young woman raised only by a company of poilu(meaning “hairy ones:” term of endearment for French soldiers in WWI) was unimpeachable and totally credible.

In comedy, all effects derive from timing and nuance, and whether directed or instinctive, Pretty was pitch perfect in both regards. For instance, at one point she is muttering to herself in frustration in an unknown tongue: she was speaking her native Zulu with tongue clicks characteristic of the Bushmen. Turns out she had forgotten her French lines in rehearsal so defaulted to dialect. Laurent Pelly said use that: it works better than the script.

The leading man, Javier Camarena’s blatant buffoonery makes him, at times, look like he’s been beaten with an idiot stick. Well, he’s in love, and love can make us all look foolish.

His stars definitely aligned for his aria A’ mes amis when he hit nine high C’s in sequence. For the first time in broadcast history, the audience demanded, and received an encore: a BOGO of 18 top notes, a performance that certainly stood out.

Other roles stood out. The imperious grande dames Stephanie Blythe as the Marquis of Birkenfield and Kathleen Turner, of screen fame, as well fit the part of the Duchess of Krakendorf. Ms. Blythe’s impenetrable facade cracks upon revelation that she is, in fact, Marie’s mother.

Also, Maurizio Murano, as Sulpice, the chief father figure of a whole regiment of fathers, is a perfect foil for Yende, Blythe and Turner.

The plot requires a generous application of what Rushkin called “the suspension of disbelief.” But, since true love wins out, it’s not that hard a sell.

The unabashed Francophilia requires a greater degree of indulgence, but, again, in the context of high art/high comedy, the bias is tolerable.

Set in WWI, the production is a nod to the recent centenary of the Great War’s conclusion. When art can bring laughter, elevation and enjoyment, it brings healing, even a century later.

And that’s what we, out on the barren plains, of all places, witnessed from the Met. That’s why we say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!”

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