By Elisa Lichtenbaum
Season 13 of Great Performances at the Met continues on Sunday, July 7 with Donizetti’s romantic comedy La Fille du Regiment, starring Pretty Yende, Javier Camarena, and Stephanie Blythe. Adding extra sparkle to the colorful comic opera is film icon Kathleen Turner, who makes her Met debut as the imperious Duchess of Krakenthorp.
The Tony- and Oscar-nominated actress joins a long list of actresses and opera greats who have enjoyed star turns in this larger-than-life non-singing role. While the Duchess only appears in the second act of the opera – to determine whether Marie, the title character, is worthy of marrying her nephew – the high-comedy antics of the character often steal the show.
Below are some of the luminaries who have lent their star power to the role in productions at the Met and beyond.
1) Marian Seldes
Legendary theater actress and longtime Juilliard Drama instructor Marian Seldes brought her unique talent and luminous stage presence to her cameo as the Duchess in Laurent Pelly’s acclaimed production of La Fille du Régiment, which starred Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, and aired on Great Performances at the Met in 2008. Variety declared that “New York stage treasure Marian Seldes, who replaced originally announced Zoe Caldwell, creates a malevolently funny cameo out of the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Growling in French and spitting out the occasional nasty aside in English, Seldes comes across as a delicious cross between Dame Edith Evans and a tarantula.”
Marian Seldes reflects on her teaching experiences in Juilliard’s Drama Division in outtakes from the 2003 American Masters film, Juilliard below.
2) Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Brooklyn-born legal trailblazer Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong opera devotee, added the title “opera diva” to her impressive resume at age 83 when she made her operatic debut as the Duchess of Krakenthorp on the opening night of the Washington National Opera’s season in 2016. The Duchess’s lines were updated especially for the Notorious RBG. After stating that the best leaders of the House of Krakenthorp have been “persons with open but not empty minds, individuals willing to listen and learn,” she looked at the audience and quipped, “Is it any wonder that the most valorous members have been women?”
Watch Justice Ginsburg’s showstopping performance here.
3) Bea Arthur
A 1994 Met Opera production of Donizetti’s beloved comic opera was famously fraught with drama when, a week before opening, Kathleen Battle was dismissed from the production and her understudy, Harolyn Blackwell, was thrust into the leading role of Marie. Enter Bea Arthur – Golden Girl extraordinaire, thoroughly modern Maude, and Angela Lansbury’s bosom buddy in the original Broadway production of Mame – as the Duchess of Krakenthorp. Dream casting, right? The New York Times didn’t think so, declaring her performance “a disruptive side show.” Maybe we’re wearing rose-colored opera glasses, but we won’t let a biting review diminish our love for the late, great fabulously gravel-voiced Tony and Emmy winner.
4) Kiri Te Kanawa
In 2014, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa celebrated her 70th birthday in grand style with The Royal Opera as the Duchess in Donizetti’s classic opera at London’s Covent Garden. The New Zealand soprano, who played Australian superstar soprano Dame Nellie Melba in a Season 4 episode of Downton Abbey, regaled audiences with a Puccini arietta (small aria) during her lively cameo. During the curtain call, the celebrated soprano was feted with flowers, a birthday serenade, and a cake presented by Jim Carter (Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey).
Watch Te Kanawa’s spectacular performance, birthday serenade, and cake presentation by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter here.
5) Montserrat Caballé
At age 74, soprano Montserrat Caballé emerged from retirement – on April Fool’s Day, no less! – to charm audiences as the Duchess in a 2007 Vienna State Opera production of La Fille du Régiment starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. “She was quite merry, exchanging rapid-fire dialogue in French and German,” according to a Playbill report. Making the most of her cameo, she even tossed a favorite Swiss yodeling song into her performance!
6) Hermione Gingold
With her low-pitched voice, haughty demeanor, and richly theatrical line delivery, eccentric English actress Hermoine Gingold made an indelible impression on audiences – whether she was starring in a Noel Coward play or, as the indomitable mayor’s wife Eulalie Shinn, staging a hilariously elaborate “Ode to a Grecian Urn” with the real housewives of River City, Iowa in the M-G-M musical The Music Man. Who better to play the fabulously imperious Duchess of Krakenthorp? Gingold took on the iconic non-speaking role in a 1974 San Francisco Opera production starring Beverly Sills, making her opera debut at age 77, and reprised the role for New York City Opera in 1979.
7) Dawn French
Best known as half of the legendary comedy team French and Saunders and the priest in the popular Britcom The Vicar of Dibley, Dawn French had even the most serious opera devotees in stitches with her high-octane portrayal of the Duchess in two Royal Opera House productions of La Fille du Régiment, in 2007 and 2010. She “commands the auditorium, oozing hauteur,” The Daily Mail said of her 2007 performance, while The Times of London declared her “the icing on an exceedingly yummy operatic cake.”
Great Performances at the Met: La Fille du Régiment premieres Sunday, July 7 at 12 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). It will air on THIRTEEN in New York on Sunday, July 7 at 1 p.m. Watch a preview of La Fille du Régiment:
ELISA LICHTENBAUM | @ElisaVonTap
Elisa Lichtenbaum, editor of the monthly THIRTEEN program guide, is also Senior Writer at WNET, a tap dancer, and theater geek.