Mécène Marié de l'Isle sang Tonio.
Marie–Julie Halligner sang The Marquise of Berkenfield.
The opening night was "a barely averted disaster." Apparently the lead tenor was frequently off pitch. The noted French tenor Gilbert Duprez, who was present, later observed in his Souvenirs d'un chanteur: "Donizetti often swore to me how his self-esteem as a composer had suffered in Paris. He was never treated there according to his merits. I myself saw the unsuccess, almost the collapse, of La fille du régiment."
It received a highly negative review from the French critic and composer Hector Berlioz (Journal des débats, 16 February 1840), who claimed it could not be taken seriously by either the public or its composer, although Berlioz did concede that some of the music, "the little waltz that serves as the entr'acte and the trio dialogué ... lack neither vivacity nor freshness." The source of Berlioz's hostility is revealed later in his review:
What, two major scores for the Opéra, Les martyrs and Le duc d'Albe, two others at the Théâtre de la Renaissance, Lucie de Lammermoor and L'ange de Nisida, two at the Opéra-Comique, La fille du régiment and another whose title is still unknown, and yet another for the Théâtre-Italien, will have been written or transcribed in one year by the same composer! M[onsieur] 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 M[onsieur] Donizetti.
The critic and poet Théophile Gautier, who was not a rival composer, had a somewhat different point of view: "M[onsieur] Donizetti is capable of paying with music that is beautiful and worthy for the cordial hospitality which France offers him in all her theatres, subsidized or not."
Despite its bumpy start, the opera soon became hugely popular at the Opéra-Comique. During its first 80 years, it reached its 500th performance at the theatre in 1871 and its 1,000th in 1908.
The opera was first performed in Italy at La Scala, Milan, on 3 October 1840, in Italian with recitatives by Donizetti replacing the spoken dialogue. It was thought "worthless" and received only six performances. It was not until 1928 when Toti Dal Monte sang Marie that the opera began to be appreciated in Italy.
La fille du régiment received its first performance in America on 7 March 1843 at the Théâtre d'Orléans in New Orleans. The New Orleans company premiered the work in New York City on 19 July 1843 with
Julie Calvé as Marie. The Spirit of the Times (22 July) counted it a great success, and, although the score was "thin" and not up to the level of Anna Bolena or L'elisir d'amore, some of Donizetti's "gems" were to be found in it. The Herald (21 July) was highly enthusiastic, especially in its praise of Calvé: "Applause is an inadequate term, ... vehement cheering rewarded this talented prima donna." Subsequently the opera was performed frequently in New York, the role of Marie being a favorite with Jenny Lind, Henriette Sontag, Pauline Lucca, Anna Thillon and Adelina Patti.
First given in England in Italian, it appeared on 27 May 1847 at Her Majesty's Theatre in London (with Jenny Lind and Luigi Lablache). Later—on 21 December 1847 in English—it was presented at the Surrey Theatre in London.
W. S. Gilbert wrote a burlesque adaptation of the opera, La Vivandière, in 1867.
20th century and beyond
1910 poster for the opera by Emile Finot
The Metropolitan Opera gave the first performances with Marcella Sembrich, and
Charles Gilibert (Sulpice) during the 1902/03 season. It was then followed by performances at the Manhattan Opera House in 1909 with Luisa Tetrazzini, John McCormack, and Charles Gilibert, and again with Frieda Hempel and Antonio Scotti in the same roles at the Met on 17 December 1917.
It was revived at the Royal Opera, London, in 1966 for Joan Sutherland. On 13 February 1970, in concert at Carnegie Hall, Beverly Sills sang the first performance in New York since Lily Pons performed it at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1943.
This opera is famous for the aria "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!" (sometimes referred to as "Pour mon âme"), which has been called the "Mount Everest" for tenors. It features eight high Cs (a ninth, frequently inserted, is not written). Luciano Pavarotti broke through to stardom via his 1972 performance alongside Joan Sutherland at the Met, when he "leapt over the 'Becher's Brook' of the string of high Cs with an aplomb that left everyone gasping."
More recently, in a 20 February 2007 performance of the opera at La Scala, Juan Diego Flórez sang "Ah! mes amis", and then, on popular demand, repeated it, breaking a tradition against encores at La Scala that had lasted nearly three-quarters of a century. Flórez repeated this feat on 21 April 2008, the opening night of Laurent Pelly's production (which had been originally staged in 2007 at Covent Garden in London) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Natalie Dessay as Marie. A live performance of this Met production, without an encore of "Ah! mes amis", was cinecast via Metropolitan Opera Live in HD to movie theaters worldwide on 26 April 2008. On 3 March 2019, tenor Javier Camarena also sang an encore of the aria at the Met, singing 18 high Cs in a performance which was broadcast live worldwide via Metropolitan Opera radio and cinecast worldwide via Metropolitan Opera Live in HD.
As a non-singing role, the Duchess of Crakenthorp is often played by non-operatic celebrities, including actresses such as Dawn French, Bea Arthur, Hermione Gingold, and Kathleen Turner, or by retired opera greats such as Kiri Te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballé. In 2016, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong opera fan, played the Duchess on opening night of the Washington National Opera's production.
Today, the opera is frequently performed to the point that it has become part of the standard repertoire.
The opera was filmed in a silent film in 1929; a sound film with Anny Ondra in 1933 in German and separately in French; in 1953; and in 1962 with John van Kesteren as Tonio.