(This is copied from The New Milton Cross' Complete Stories of Great Operas by Milton Cross, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1955)
The Countess of Berkenfeld
Ortensio, her servant ..........................Bass
A peasant ........................ ..Tenor
Sulpizio, a sergeant in the Twenty-first Regiment of Napoleon's army .. Bass
Maria, vivandiere of the Twenty-first Regiment ............................. .. Soprano
Tonio, a young Tyrolese .. .......................... Tenor
A notary .......................... .Tenor
The Duchess ............................ .. .Mezzo-soprano
Soldiers, peasants, ladies in waiting, servants
Place: The Austrian Tyrol
Time: About 1815
First performance: Opera-Comique, Paris, February 11, 1840 (as La Fille du Regiment)
Original language: Italian
LA FIGLIA DEL REGGIMENTO was composed by Donizetti during the latter part of his career. Although it did not achieve the enduring popularity of his more famous operas, it contains much music that is gay and ingratiating. The title role was a favorite with such great nineteenth-century singers as Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti. Although given under its French title-La Fille du Regiment-at its premiere, the opera is best known by its Italian title.
There is a lively overture which opens with a fanfare and then continues
with themes reminiscent of the various romantic and martial melodies prominent
in the opera.
A mountain passage in the Tyrol. At one side is a cottage. In the back-ground a group of peasants are looking down into the valley, following the progress of a battle. It is the time of the occupation of the Tyrol by Napoleon's army. In the foreground the Countess of Berkenfeld, apparently on the verge of fainting, is being attended by Ortensio, her servant. The Countess is greatly distressed over the fact that she is unable to leave her castle in the Tyrol because of the fighting between the Tyrolese and the French. Nearby a number of ladies in waiting are kneeling, their expressions reflecting anxiety and fear. At the present moment there is a lull in the fighting. In an opening chorus the peasants urge everyone to be silent and cautious ("Silenzio! Destrezza ed ardir!"-"L'ennemi s'avance"). The ladies then are heard in a plea for heavenly protection ("Cielo clemente"-"Sainte Madone" ) . Ortensio assures the Countess that danger is past, and then the voices of the ladies and the peasants join in a chorus of prayer.
Suddenly a peasant stationed as a lookout calls that not a Frenchman is in sight and that safety is now assured. The chorus is resumed as the people express their relief and happiness. At its conclusion the ladies withdraw to the cottage and most of the peasants go back to their homes in the valley. A few remain with the Countess. She is still frightened and in a state of alarm, exclaiming that she has had her fill of warfare. Ortensio starts to say something about her experiences of the past, but the Countess cuts him short. She is undecided on whether to remain in her mountain castle or return to Austria. Ordering Ortensio to find out as best he can what the military situation is, she enters the cottage.
Sulpizio, a sergeant in Napoleon's Twenty-first Regiment, now comes striding in, highly elated over the rout of the enemy. The proclamations make everything clear, he announces to nobody in particular. Whoever holds with the Bavarians is a foe of the French. It is that simple. At that moment a merry "La-la-la" is heard in the distance. Sulpizio exclaims that it is Maria the daughter of the illustrious Twenty-first. Maria, a pert young lady in the uniform of Napoleon's army, comes in smartly. She and Sulpizio affectionately greet each other. The regiment, says Maria, is everything to her- father, brother, guardian. She does her comrades credit, she avers, because she is a true soldier.
A spirited duet follows ("Io vidi la luce nel camp guerir"-"Au bruit de la guerre") . Maria sings that her joy is in camp life and in battle, while Sulpizio compliments himself on the fact that he has brought her up to be a lady. After joining her in expressing various patriotic sentiments, Sulpizio recalls the day he found her as a baby and how the soldiers immediately adopted her as their child. Then, after she grew to womanhood, they chose her as their vivandiere. The duet comes to a climax as Maria and Sulpizio sing the Rataplan, rataplan refrain for which the opera is famous.
The sergeant then tells Maria that the regiment is agreed that it is time she found herself a husband. The men have observed, he says, that she has been talking to a young Tyrolean. Maria answers that he is a young peasant who recently saved her life. Just as she is about to explain, there is a commotion in the distance, and shortly afterward the young man himself-Tonio- is dragged in by soldiers. Maria gasps in astonishment. Sulpizio immediately orders him locked up in the guardhouse.
When Maria asks Tonio why he came to this place he answers that it was because he wished to see her. The soldiers declare that he is suspected of being a spy. At that Maria cries that she will not stand idly by while they condemn to death the man who saved her life. She explains that Tonio rescued her after she had fallen into a mountain torrent. The soldiers roar their approval and agree that this young man is brave enough to join the regiment, while Tonio remarks in an aside that joining up will at least assure him of being close to Maria. The soldiers promptly drink a toast to the prospective recruit and then ask Maria to sing her song about the Twenty- first Regiment ("Lo dice ognum"-"Ah! Chacun le sait, chacun le dit" ) . As the soldiers join in lustily at intervals, Maria extols the incomparable Twenty-first, which has won so many battles that the Emperor himself has taken notice of its prowess.
After the chorus there is a roll of drums calling the soldiers to quarters. Maria attempts to keep Tonio with her, but her efforts are thwarted by Sulpizio, who sends the young man off with two grenadiers as his guards. The sergeant and his men then leave, singing a martial chorus ("Sprona il tamburo"-"Des que l'appel sonne") . As Maria is lamenting that Tonio has been taken away from her the young man himself rushes in. He explains that he managed to escape from the sergeant and the soldiers. When Maria asks why he returned he gives her the obvious answer in the opening phrase of the love duet which follows ("Perche v'amo"-"Depuis l'instant ou dans mes bras").
Maria is at first skeptical of his avowals, and when he declares that he was determined to give up home and country for her sake she chides him for even thinking of so unpatriotic a sacrifice. He protests that he would gladly die for her sake, to which Maria teasingly answers that a lover should think of living, not dying. At length she decides to believe his fervent declarations, and the duet concludes with the two singing of their future happiness together.
Just as they embrace, Sulpizio returns. He fumes at Tonio for daring to make love to Maria, pointing out that she is destined to marry the bravest man in the Twenty-First-not a Tyrolean peasant. Tonio promptly declares that he will join up, but Sulpizio scoffs at the idea. The young man asserts that he intends to marry Maria and no one else. Sulpizio threatens him, but Tonio laughs in his face and runs off, calling back to Maria that he will meet her later. Maria runs away in the opposite direction before Sulpizio can stop her.
Angry and impatient with Maria, Sulpizio is about to run after her when Ortensio and the Countess appear. The sergeant's temper is not improved when Ortensio calls him "Captain" instead of "Sergeant." Sulpizio barks at him to keep quiet and finally deigns to listen to what the Countess has to say. She requests the favor of an escort to her castle at Berkenfeld. At the mention of the name Sulpizio starts in surprise, exclaiming that it brings back recollections of a certain Captain Robert. It is the Countess's turn to be surprised. When Sulpizio asks if she knew Captain Robert she replies in some confusion that she had a sister who married the captain secretly. They had an infant daughter, and then the mother died. The daughter, Sulpizio breaks in, is Maria, the pride of the Twenty-first Regiment.
He shows proof of Maria's identity by producing a letter written by Captain Robert just before the battle in which he was slain. The letter instructed his servant to carry the child to Berkenfeld Castle, but the servant was himself slain before he reached the castle. Maria was subsequently found by the soldiers, who reared her as their own daughter.
The Countess remarks that she hopes the child has been brought up to be a lady. Sulpizio's enthusiastic assurances on this point are interrupted by the sound of Maria's voice loudly calling to the sergeant to hurry and emphasizing her summons by a succession of lusty soldier's oaths. The Countess of course, is shocked. When Maria swaggers in the embarrassed Sulpizio introduces her to the Countess, who addresses the girl as her niece. Obviously unimpressed by the fact that the Countess is her aunt, Maria turns to Sulpizio with another oath and demands to know if this means that she must leave her regiment. The sergeant replies that her military career has come to an end. When Maria vehemently protests he shows her the letter, explaining that it is the last will and testament of her father, Captain Robert. It was his wish, Sulpizio says, that Maria be committed to the care of her aunt. Maria reads the letter and is heartbroken. Sulpizio sadly bids her good-by and leaves, while the Countess orders Ortensio to have a carriage in readiness.
There is a fanfare in the distance, and soon the regiment comes marching in to sing the stirring Rataplan chorus, the burden of which is the glory of combat and victory. At the conclusion of the chorus Tonio marches in with the French colors conspicuously displayed on his hat. In a vigorous air he informs the soldiers that he has enlisted and is now their comrade ("Amici miei che allegro giomo"-"Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fete"). He admits that he has joined the colors for the love of Maria and then asks permission of her "fathers" to marry her. When they scornfully refuse he assures them that Maria loves him as ardently as he loves her. The soldiers philosophically decide that if such is the case they may as well approve the match. They express sentiments to that effect in an ensuing chorus ("Che scena! che imbroglio!"-"Que dire, que faire"). In florid solo interludes Tonio expresses his joy over their decision.
But his hopes are shattered when Sulpizio reappears and tells him that
Maria's days with the regiment are over, for she has been consigned to
the care of a relative. Maria sings her farewell in a tender refrain ("Convien
partir, o miei compagni d'arme"-"Il faut partir, mes bons compagnons").
An ensemble is built up as Sulpizio, Tonio, and the soldiers voice their
sorrow. After the chorus Tonio declares that he will not leave Maria, whereupon
Sulpizio reminds him that he has enlisted and must go with the regiment.
The ensemble is resumed as the men angrily consign the Countess to the
devil for thwarting Maria's romance. Maria and Tonio heartbrokenly bid
each other farewell. The Countess sternly orders Maria to come away with
her. After the impressive climax of the chorus the soldiers present arms.
Maria, though tearful, salutes smartly, passes through the ranks, and then
walks up the road at the rear toward the carriage, which is waiting out
of sight. Just before she disappears she turns and waves farewell. Tonio
rips the colors from his hat and stamps on them as the curtain falls.
The salon of Berkenfeld Castle. Ortensio ushers in Sulpizio, who has his arm in a sling, evidently having been wounded in a skirmish. He has been given permission to remain at the castle with Maria for the present. Ortensio tells him that the marriage papers have been prepared and that the Duchess will soon arrive with the young Duke, who has been selected as a likely husband for Maria. When Ortensio leaves, Sulpizio frets over the thought that Maria, accustomed to carefree regimental life, now must do whatever she is told and is even obliged to learn the minuet. Maria enters. She is very downcast, and Sulpizio tries to cheer her. She tells the sergeant that the Countess will soon be here to teach her a song which she is to sing at a party this evening. She fumes that she is not interested in singing these dull songs -nor is she interested in barons or dukes. She wants only Tonio. Sulpizio then reveals that Tonio was wounded in action and that there has been no news either of him or the regiment.
At that point the Countess, attired in antiquated finery, sweeps in to rehearse Maria in her song, Venus Descendeth, by the eminent Maestro Caffariello. Seating herself at a harpsichord in one comer of the room, the Countess orders Maria to begin. Maria dutifully sings the opening strains of a pompous and sentimental aria about Venus descending at twilight to meet her lover ( "Sorgeva il di del bosco in seno"-"Le jour naissait dans le bocage") .
Sulpizio murmurs to Maria that such songs were never sung by the regiment. Softly he repeats a phrase of the Rataplan, and Maria, without thinking, takes it up. The Countess asks the meaning of this strange interruption. Maria stammers that she has lost her place. She begins again, but after a phrase or two she and Sulpizio again break into the martial refrain of the Rataplan ( "Egli e la"-"Le voila, le voila!" ) .
A lively trio follows. Maria and Sulpizio, caught up in the spirit of the music, march about the room singing of the glories of the Twenty-first, while the Countess does her best to bring Maria back to her aria. The more indignant the Countess becomes over what she terms the vulgarities of a common soldier's song, the more enthusiastically Maria and Sulpizio sing. The trio comes to an end when the Countess storms out. Maria goes to her room. Sulpizio, also about to leave, is met by Ortensio, who tells him that a wounded soldier is outside and wishes to see him. Assuming it is Tonio, the sergeant rushes out.
Maria reappears, lamenting that her fate is sealed. In a moving aria she sings that wealth and position are meaningless to her without true love ("Me sedur han creduto"-"C'en est donc fait et mon coeur va changer" ). As she is bewailing her plight she hears the beat of drums outside. In another moment her beloved soldiers, Tonio among them, crowd into the salon, and Maria rapturously welcomes them. The soldiers hail the reunion in a lusty chorus, in which Maria joins. Sulpizio appears and also is enthusiastically greeted.
The sergeant declares that the occasion calls for some drinking. He summons the bewildered Ortensio and orders him to give a bottle of wine to every soldier. He then sends the men into the garden, where they are to be served. He and Tonio and Maria now sing a delightful trio in which they rejoice over the fact that the three of them have been reunited ("Stretti insiem tutti tre"-"Tous les trois reunis" ). In the central portion of the number there is a brief change of mood as Tonio and Maria try to make Sulpizio promise that he will plead their cause with the Countess. He warns them that certain complications are involved, but they pay no heed. Finally the trio reverts to its original sparkling theme.
The Countess now comes in. Eying Tonio, she expresses indignation at seeing a grenadier in her drawing room. Maria explains that he is Tonio, whom she loves very much. Tonio starts to speak, but the Countess cuts him short with the announcement that Maria is to marry the Duke of Crackenthorp this very day. Sulpizio protests, but the Countess rebukes him for taking sides against her. The argument ends when the Countess abruptly orders Tonio to leave and sends Maria weeping to her room. Asking Sulpizio to remain, she tells him to lock the door. She then shows him a letter, requesting him to read it aloud. It reveals that Maria is actually the daughter of the Countess-the result of a clandestine romance with a French officer during her youth. The Countess implores Sulpizio to help her persuade Maria to many the Duke of Crackenthorp for the sake of social position. The sergeant promises to do what he can and then leaves to advise Maria.
The Duchess and the notary are announced. Informing the Countess that her son has been delayed, the Duchess inquires about Maria. The Countess explains that her niece will appear shortly. Sulpizio returns to report that he has had no success with Maria. He suggests that if the girl is told that the Countess is her mother she will not dare disobey. The Countess agrees, and Sulpizio returns to Maria, while the notary announces that the Duke has already signed the marriage contract. It awaits only Maria's signature. Meanwhile the ladies in waiting and others of the court have arrived for the ceremony.
Sulpizio leads in Maria, who tearfully approaches her mother and asks if she must sign. The Countess answers firmly that it is her wish. Just then there is a commotion outside, and in the next moment the soldiers, with Tonio at their head, burst into the room. In a vigorous chorus they assure Maria that they will not permit their "daughter" to be forced into an unwelcome marriage ( "Ti rincora, amata figlia"-"Au secours de notre fille"). She is pledged to Tonio, they protest, and she is their own vivandiere. There are various expressions of consternation from the ladies.
Maria steps forward and in a dramatic air declares that she cannot repudiate such sincere kindness and affection ("Quando fanciulla ancor l'avverso"-"Quand le destin au milieu"). Her loyalty wins the hearts of not only the court but the Countess as well. Asserting that she will not stand in the way of the lovers' happiness, the Countess gives them her blessing. Sulpizio avows that if it were not for his long mustachios he would reward the Countess's magnanimity with a kiss. The ladies in waiting are scandalized, but their objections are lost in the brief but stirring ensemble in which all sing a salute to France ("Salvezza alla Francia"-"Salut a la France"). The curtain falls.