Donizetti's "Daughter" in 1840 and 1940

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Sunday, February 11, 2018

On today’s date in 1840, a comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti had its premiere performance at the Opéra Comique in Paris. This was “La fille du régiment,” or “The Daughter of the Regiment.”

Some of the Italian composer’s other operas were already playing in Paris that year, and still more were scheduled. Despite being tailor-made to Parisian tastes and traditions, the opening night of “The Daughter of the Regiment” was not well received.

Apparently French opera composers, Berlioz among them, felt threatened by the Donizetti blitz. Berlioz’s review of the newest Donizetti opera included these lines: “Monsieur Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country. It is a veritable invasion. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only of the opera houses of Donizetti!”

Well, eventually Donizetti did win over French hearts and minds, and, it’s rather ironic to note that one hundred years after its 1840 premiere, Paris was indeed an occupied country. In 1940, German tanks rolled into Paris, and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the patriotic French soprano Lily Pons used her starring role in a revival performance of Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment” as an opportunity to stage a musical protest. In solidarity with the French Resistance, she added a rousing version of the “Marseilles” to the finale of Donizetti’s score, which brought sympathetic American audiences to their feet.