Lily Pons’ Finest Moment

DONIZETTI: La Fille du Régiment / Lily Pons, soprano (Marie); Raoul Jobin, tenor (Tonio); Irra Petina, contralto (Marquise of Berkenfield); Salvatore Baccaloni, bass (Sgt. Sulpice); Louis d’Angelo, bass (Hortentius); Marie Savage, speaker (Duchess of Krakenthorp); Lodovico Oliviero, tenor (Peasant); Wilfred Engelman, bass (Corporal); unknown (Notary); Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch.; Gennaro Papi, conductor / Sony Classical 886443147522, also available for free streaming on YouTube or Spotify (live: New York, December 28, 1940)

Here is not just an opera performance but a moment in time—a famous comic opera turned into a personal showcase for the soprano as well as a political statement, Lily Pons’ famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) December 1940 broadcast of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.

The reason I’m reviewing it here and now is that I just tripped across it on YouTube yesterday, listened to it, and was blown away. There were several reasons why I was blown away. First and foremost, I never really liked Pons’ voice after she left France for our shores in 1931. I always found it a bit shrill and pallid, emotionally inexpressive, and with the tendency to go flat. Second, I had heard that the performance was heavily cut and that Pons had added not only the “Marseillaise” to the performance but also a bit of Lucie’s Act I aria (“Que n’avaons-nous des ailes?”) from the French version of Lucia di Lammermoor, so I wasn’t interested in hearing it.

But, as it turns out, none of this matters. This is a helluva Fille du Regiment—in fact, the most exciting and fun performance I’ve ever heard. And it’s not just Pons who’s great in it. French-Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin, who I always found somewhat strained of voice and dull in interpretation, really delivers one of his greatest performances here. Irra Petina, a singer barely remembered today, sings the best Marquise of Berkenfield you’ll ever hear in your life, and Salvatore Baccaloni is, without question, the greatest Sergeant Sulpice ever recorded. On top of all this, Gennaro Papi, who in 1913-15 had been Toscanini’s assistant conductor at the Met, pulls everything together and conducts like a house on fire.

Pons, the original genius of self-marketing, promotion and what we now call “branding,” spared no efforts to make this a performance that people would remember. She made sure that the premiere of this production was not a regular weekday performance but the Saturday afternoon broadcast, which meant that millions would hear it (and all of the New York music critics had to attend and review it). And although she gave seven performances of it under the auspices of the Met (all of them with Papi), only three were given at the New York house. The others were performed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music (January 21, 1941),  the Metropolitan Theatre in Boston (April 1, 1941), Cleveland’s Public Auditorium (April 16, 1941) and the Fair Park Auditorium in Dallas (April 26, 1941). In short, she made it her own traveling road show and, because each outside performance was a premiere in that city, all of those performances got major newspaper reviews. Oh, yes…she also made the cover of Time magazine for her efforts. Possibly the best review, in that it perfectly described what you hear on this recording, came from Arthur Loesser, a splendid classical pianist, musicologist and the highbrow brother of famed musical composer Frank Loesser, in the Cleveland Press:

“The Daughter of the Regiment” is a slight, unpretentious piece which never aimed at being anything but light entertainment. Our father’s generation thought of it as hopelessly outmoded, but it is sufficiently remote now so that its resurrection seems animated by a certain freshness, especially when done as it was last night with much liveliness and high spirits.

Like Musical Comedy

It contains many easy tunes, some snappy choruses, some coloratura stunts on the tonal flying trapeze, some cute costumes and dancing, and a fair amount of custard-pie comedy. Indeed, to the naked ear, it is indistinguishable from what we usually call musical comedy.

Originally leveled at the tired business man of Paris of 1840, it turns out to be pretty good medicine for the tired business man, as well as tired doctor, lawyer, merchant chief – and music critic – of Cleveland of 1941.

Chief vocal feature of the show was the singing of the famous coloratura soprano Lily Pons, in the title role. She developed some charming phrases in her slower numbers, especially the air: “Il faut partir,” toward the end of the second act.

Thus, this is a performance of Fille du Regiment that fizzles like a bottle of champagne that some idiot shook up before the cork was popped. It’s so full of fun and high energy that you’d swear you could actually see the performers as they sing it.

Perhaps the most egregious cut in the opera is the now-famous tenor cabaletta, “Pour mon âme,” with its nine (sometimes eight) high Cs, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti in 1968 and sung ever since by a laundry list of tenors, some of whom only sang it in concert and not in an actual performance. Some mean-spirited scribes have suggested that Pons was responsible for cutting it because she didn’t want the tenor to get as much applause as she did for her high-range pyrotechnics, and perhaps there is some truth to this, but you have to take two other factors into consideration: 1) not one French or French-Canadian tenor I know of has ever sung this cabaletta in the entire 20th century. It is generally the province of American (Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt, Lawrence Brownlee) and various Latin tenors (Pavarotti, Kraus, Florez, Camarena, Alagna), and 2) Raoul Jobin had a limited top range that stopped at a high B. So why risk exposing himself to possible failure if his high Cs weren’t secure? (Of course, he could have transposed it down a half-tone, but as I said, since no one was singing it at that time he probably didn’t even bother with it.) Nonetheless, if you’d like to splice in a recording of “Pour mon âme,” as I did, I suggest using the performance by Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, whose voice sounds the most like Jobin’s. After all, this is the best Fille du Regiment there is, so why not? You may as well have it.

The bottom line is, this is plenty of fun but not great art. It’s an opéra-comique equivalent of a musical comedy, a bon-bon that you sometimes need when you’re feeling a bit blue and funky, and God knows we can all use a pick-me-up in these uncertain times. So go for it!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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