Today concluding my review of the Metropolitan Live in HD production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment“.
Sadly, Donizetti’s story has more plot-holes than a slab of Tyrolean Swiss cheese. For example: In the very first scene, the Marquise and her entourage are terrified of the advance of the French soldiers. Who knows what those brutes are capable of? And yet, not that much later, the Marquise seems to be on quite chummy terms (and already acquainted with?) Sargeant Sulpice of the French regiment. Speaking of which, at the very start of the opera, some Met functionary came out on stage to announce that the baritone Maurizio Muraro was suffering from a cold. I assumed that there was to be an understudy; but no, Muraro did actually sing the role (and quite well too)! I reckon the announcement was just for his benefit, in case he felt his own voice was not quite up to snuff. Like I said, it sounded fine to me.
In Donizetti’s story, Marie is (as we learn in Act II) the illegitimate daughter of the Marquise de Berkenfield, an Austrian noblewoman. In her youth, the Marquise had a fling with some guy named Robert, they went off to Geneva to have the baby, later she returned to her castle sans bébé, and nobody any the wiser. Again more plot holes, because it is never explained exactly how Mom managed to slip the infant onto the Napoleonic battlefield. Fortunately for the little bastard, a regiment of kindly French cavalrymen heard her crying, took her in, raised her; and when she was old enough she started working for them as a “Canteen Girl”, or Vivandière, as the French call them.
How outlandish is that? Well, actually, this story reminded me of a story told by Russian cavalryman Nadezhda Durova, in her account of the Napoleonic war, and her role therein. Durova’s autobiography is a classic of Russian literature and a decent first-person account of the Napoleonic wars, as seen through the eyes of a young woman in drag. In her chapter entitled “1813“, Durova recounts the aftermath of the French retreat; how the French corpses are stinking up the countryside around Smolensk. The French retreat had been so horrific (for the French) that even the Russian soldiers feel sorry for them; although the ordinary peasants are unforgiving and don’t even bother to bury the corpses.
Durova was travelling with her brother Vasily at the time, she was already out of uniform by then and back in her girly clothes, but still excited to relive her glory days.
Returning to the carriage station, the siblings meet the wife of the station master, who invites them to wait inside while she orders the horses. As they are waiting, they notice an adorable little girl hanging on to her skirts. “Is this your daughter?” Durova asks.
“No, this is a little French orphan girl.” The hostess proceeds to tell them the story. Durova’s words, translated into English by myself:
The French came to us sure of victory and a guaranteed life, and in their confidence, many even brought their families with them. During their ruinous retreat, or, one should say, their flight home, some of these families attempted to hide in our forests. Hiding from the cold, and from the Cossacks. One such family settled near Smolensk, they lived in the forest, built themselves a hut, they were setting up a fire, and trying to cook whatever scarce foodstuffs they could get; and then suddenly the cries of Cossacks resounded through the forest. Poor devils! […] They took off and ran in all directions, trying to reach the deepest parts of the forest. The oldest daughter, about 8 years old (the one we met at the station, standing in front of us, clinging to the knees of her benefactress and crying while listening to the story) had fled into an impenetrable part of the glade. Until dusk she was crawling around in the deep snow, not having any proper clothing except her white frock. The poor child, completely frozen, finally, near dawn, had crawled out onto the highway. Having no more strength to walk, just crawling on her hands and knees. At that time a Cossack officer was riding by on his horse. He wouldn’t have even noticed her, but the little girl had enough spirit left in her to cry out to him: “Ami! par bonte prenez moi sur votre cheval!”
The astonished Cossack stopped his horse and peered at the object before him on the road. Touched to tears, he saw this half-naked child, most of her clothing had been torn, her hands and feet were completely frozen; she then just fell into a faint in front of him.
The officer took her into his arms, put her on the horse with him, and rode to Smolensk. Passing by the station, he saw the wife of the station master, standing at the gate. “Take her,” the Cossack pleaded. “Do me a huge favor and take care of this child.” The woman replied that she had no room for another child, she already had so many children of her own.
“If you won’t take her, then I must slice her head off, right in front of you, in order to spare her any further suffering.”
Struck, as if by lightning, by this threat, the woman quickly grabbed the unconscious little girl out of the officer’s arms and took her inside. The officer galloped away.
For more than two months the child remained at death’s door; the poor thing was completely frozen, her skin peeled off in clumps from her hands and feet, her hair fell out; but finally, after a ferocious fever, she returned to life. And now this little girl lives with the station master’s wife and is treated like a beloved daughter, she even forgot her native Polish; and thanks to her tender years she doesn’t even pine for her lost past or all the luxuries she was entitled to: For she hails from one of the best families of Lyon. Many important ladies, to whom the station master’s wife has told this story, as she told it to us, have offered to take the orphan into their own families; but she would always respond, embracing the station master’s wife: “Mamenka returned me to life, I will stay with her forever!” On telling the story, the station master’s wife burst out sobbing and clutched to her breast the sobbing child. This scene touched us to the depths of our hearts.