La fille du régiment - Synopsis

The Story of Donizetti's 2 Act Opera

The great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) and amazing Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) star in a production of Donizetti's comic opera 'La Fille du Regiment' at Covent Garden Opera House in London on May 27, 1966.
The great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) and amazing Australian soprano Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) star in a production of Donizetti's comic opera 'La Fille du Regiment' at Covent Garden Opera House in London on May 27, 1966. Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Composer

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)

English Translation

The Daughter of the Regiment

Libretto

Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges (1799-1875), a French author with over 70 works (mostly for opera and a few for ballet including Adolphe Adam's Giselle), and Jean-François Bayard (1796-1853), a French playwright with over 200 works, jointly wrote the libretto for Donizetti's opera, La fille du régiment.

The Premiere

La fille du régiment premiered on February 11, 1840, in the Paris Opéra-Comique at the Salle de la Bourse, and it wasn't a performance to write home about.  Fraught with musical errors and out-of-tune singing, the opera was harshly criticized by notable romantic period composer Hector Berlioz (read the synopsis of Berlioz' opera, Les Troyens) less than a week later.  (In a interview given by Berlioz some time later, he revealed that one couldn't find a theater in Paris that wasn't performing one of Donizetti's operas.  In fact, he was upset that opera houses of Paris were being referred to as opera houses of Donizetti.)  Regardless of its lamentable start, La fille du régiment found favor with its Parisian audiences thanks to its comedic, yet dramatic, libretto and its beautifully written music that is both melodious and extremely difficult to sing.  The opera, due to its patriotic content, was typically performed in France on Bastille Day.

Notable Arias

The Characters

  • Hortensius, butler to the Marquise (bass)
  • Marquise of Birkenfeld (contralto)
  • A Townsman (tenor)
  • Sergeant Sulpice (bass)
  • Marie (soprano)
  • Tonio (tenor)
  • A Corporal (bass)
  • Duchess of Krakenthorp (spoken)
  • Notary (spoken)

The Setting

La fille du régiment takes place in the Swiss Tyrol during the early 19th century Napoleonic Wars.

The Synopsis of La fille du régiment

Act 1
While traveling to Austria, the Marquise of Birkenfeld and her butler, Hortensius, are suddenly stopped by a blockade caused by the French army.  Both are frightened by the battle between the French and the Tyrols and wait with the local villagers.  The Marquise expresses her irritation with the rudeness of the French people, but is happy to learn that the soldiers have finally started to retreat and they can continue  on their journey.  Before the Marquise and her butler can leave, Sergeant Sulpice of the 21st Regiment arrives, assuring the panicked villagers that he and his French troops will restore order to the surrounding areas.  He is quickly followed by Marie, the adopted daughter of the regiment (they found her abandoned as a child).  He begins interrogating her about the young man he spotted her with, and she tells him that his name is Tonio, a Tyrolean.  French soldiers burst into scene pushing along a bound man - it's Tonio.

 They inform Sergeant Sulpice the he was found snooping outside the soldier's camp, but Tonio claims he was only looking for Marie.  The soldiers request Tonio be killed, but Marie pleads for his life.  She recounts a story of how Tonio saved her life once while she was climbing a mountain.  The soldiers quickly change their mind and begin favoring Tonio, especially after he pledges his allegiance to France.  Sergeant Sulpice leads Tonio and his troops back to camp.  Tonio stealthily returns to Marie to tell her he loves her.  Marie says that if he wants to marry her, he must first obtain the approval from all of her fathers in the 21st regiment.  Sergeant Sulpice approaches the young couple to their surprise and they leave in the direction of the camp.  

The marquise and her butler greet Sergeant Sulpice, who hasn't left yet, and asks him if he could provide them with an escort to safely lead them back to the marquise's castle.

 The Sergeant takes a moment to ponder and realizes that he has heard of her name before - it was mentioned in a letter that was placed with Marie when she was swaddled and left alone on the battlefield.  It turns out that the Marquise is Marie's aunt.  The Marquise confirms Sergeant Sulpice's suspicions, stating that Marie is the daughter of her sister and was entrusted to the Marquise.  Sadly, the baby was lost during a battle.  When Marie returns from the camp, she is shocked to find out the news.  The Marquise is aghast by Marie's less-than-ladylike manners, and is determined to make her into a proper woman.  She orders the Sergeant to release Marie into her care and announces she will take her back to her castle.  Marie agrees to live with her aunt.  As they prepare to depart, Tonio rushes in excitedly.  He has just enlisted into the ranks of the 21st regiment and asks Marie to marry him.  Marie explains the situation and bids farewell.

Act 2

Several months have passed, and the Marquise has been trying her best to train and educate Marie, hoping to extinguish all of the qualities and habits she picked up from the soldiers.  The Marquise has arranged for Marie to marry the Duke of Krakenthorp (the marquise's nephew), but Marie is far from keen on the idea.  Sergeant Sulpice, who is there to recover from an injury and help the marquise with her plans, is asked by the marquise to help convince Marie it is best for her to marry the duke.  The sergeant agrees.  Later, the marquise sits down at the piano and instructs Marie in a singing lesson.  The sergeant watches as Marie keeps wavering back in forth from what she's supposed to sing and the regimental song she used to sing with the soldiers.  The marquise is quickly angered and storms out of the room. Moments later, the sound of marching footsteps his heard outside and the troops of the 21st regiment begin making their way into the hall.  Marie is overjoyed and greets her friends enthusiastically.  Tonio appears and asks Marie to marry him.

 Before she can say anything, the marquise walks back into the hall and declares that Marie is engaged to the duke.  The marquise coldly dismisses Tonio, then pulls the sergeant aside to speak with him privately.  The marquise confesses that Marie is actually her own daughter, but does not want to announce it out of fear of being disgraced. 

When the duke arrives with his wedding party, no one can get Marie to leave her room.  Finally, she allows Sergeant Sulpice to enter.  He divulges the truth about her mother.  Marie has mixed emotions; grateful she has been reunited with her mother, but sick to her stomach that she would have to marry a man she doesn't love.  Marie ultimately decides to honor her mother's wishes and agrees to marry the duke.  She nervously greets the duke and proceeds with the ceremony.  Just as they are about to sign the marriage contract, Tonio and the soldiers burst into the room.  They tell the entire wedding party that Marie was their "canteen" girl.  The wedding partly looks at her in disgust until she explains that no amount of money will ever be able to repay the soldiers for their love, kindness, and willingness to raise her decency and respect.  The wedding party, and even the marquise, are moved by Marie's words.  The marquise happily gives her daughter's hand in marriage to Tonio, and everyone celebrates.