This symphonic curtain-raiser introduces a number of main themes of the opera. Director Lo King-man has devised an ingenious scenic narrative which informs the audience how the baby Marie is abandoned near the army camp; how she is brought up by an entire regiment sharing the responsibility as her fathers; and how they elect her to be their vivandiere, overseer of supplies, cook and canteen girl.
This unique episode of great fun is created solely for this Musica Viva production, entirely made in Hong Kong.
Brought up by the soldiers of the 21st Regiment of the French Army and adopted by them as their ‘daughter’, the vivandiere Marie confesses to Sergeant Sulpice that she is much taken with a young forester from the region of Aosta, Tonio, who saved her life when she nearly fell off a precipice. The attraction is mutual, for Tonia has been lurking around the encampment hoping to talk to Marie. Seized as a spy, the young fellow is claimed by Marie as her personal prisoner, and in their ensuing duet they express their true feelings for one another. Hoping to marry Marie, Tonia is surprised to learn that her future husband must be a member of the Regiment, tidings that cause him promptly to enlist. The Regiment celebrates his decision, calling on Marie to sing the regimental song.
The Marchioness of Berkenfield (La Marquise), stranded in the village because of the war, learns from Sulpice that a certain Captain Robert had been a member of this very regiment. On the strength of this information, she claims to be Marie’s aunt and insists on removing the girl from what in her eyes a very unsuitable environment. Now in uniform, Tonia has come to claim his bride, but Marie is forced to leave by the Marchioness’ intervention. The Regiment bid her a sad farewell.
At the Marchioness’ summer residence, a chateau in the Alpine region, Marie is bored by lessons in dancing and in singing silly archaic romances, her reluctance strengthened by the presence of Sulpice, whom the Marchioness has invited for a visit. Longing for her freedom and harassed by her aunt’s insistence on respectability and that she marries a duke she does not know, Marie is overjoyed when the 21st Regiment arrives at the chateau.
Tonio, who has been promoted on the battlefield, pleads with the Marchioness for Marie’s hand but is refused. During the reception to announce Marie’s engagement to the duke, the Marchioness suffers a change of heart and confesses to the startled company that Marie is in fact her own illegitimate daughter. The guests are further scandalized by the knowledge that Marie was the Regiment’s canteen girl.
The Marchioness finally consents to Marie’s marriage to Tonio. Amid general rejoicing, the opera ends with a patriotic chorus, Salut a la France.