During the 19th century “Fra Diavolo,” written by Auber to a libretto by Scribe, was one of France’s most popular operas, amassing over 900 performances at the Opéra Comique, before finally being dropped from the repertoire in 1907.
Nowadays, it has largely been forgotten, with only the occasional rare outing, of which Opera Roma’s is the latest offering. Yet, based on this production it does seem very strange that it has not been able to re-establish itself. It has a well-crafted and engaging plot, with well-defined and sympathetic characters, replete with an array of memorable tunes, and unlike so many comedy operas, it can genuinely amuse. It positively whisks the audience along, yet at the same time, it contains a violent and criminal underside that adds contrast and elevates the work above the purely superficial. In fact, Auber’s music deliberately and successfully highlights the irony at the heart of the work, encouraging us to take a light-hearted approach to the violent, murderous behavior of the charming and charismatic Fra Diavolo and his band of bungling thugs. The nature of the opera is perfectly captured in its overture, which juxtaposes some of its light, airy, and optimistic musical themes alongside darker tones and military motifs, which allude to the work’s ever-present violence and criminality.
Scribe’s libretto of “Fra Diavolo” was based on the real-life bandit, Michele Pezza, who operating during the Napoleonic occupation of the Italian peninsula, became a national folk hero. He was considered, rightly or wrongly, to be a latter-day Robin Hood who, in addition to his banditry, harassed Napoleon’s forces. Scribe’s “Fra Diavolo” has little in common with the historical figure, but his name was so well-known that he was also famous in France, and therefore, a useful cipher for characterizing a bandit. Scribe’s storyline is fairly simple, using the typical devices found in many comedies, namely disguises, misunderstandings, hiding in cupboards and so on. The drama is focused on an inn in Terracina, to which arrives Lord Rocburg and Lady Pamela, who have just been robbed by Fra Diavolo and his band. Lorenzo and his troop of Carabinieri have been sent to capture him. Zerline, the daughter of the innkeeper is to be married to a rich farmer but is in love with Lorenzo. Fra Diavolo arrives in disguise to continue his pursuit of Lord Rocburg and Lady Pamela’s money. Havoc ensues, in which Fra Diavolo escapes, but eventually, he is caught after being trapped due to the stupidity of his henchmen. Everything ends as it is supposed to, with the two lovers finally united. Nothing too deep, but the narrative is fairly brutal. The drama is, however, not so one dimensional as it first may appear, and is open to a variety of interpretations. Is Fra Diavolo a latter-day Robin Hood, as he sometimes thinks of himself? At all times he acts without any ethical reflection, yet he is charming and courageous. He is an attractive character – are we supposed to identify with him?
In Opera Roma’s production, the answer is an unambiguous “No!” Fra Diavolo is portrayed as a brutal murderous individual, who is always shown for what he is. His charming seductive side is downplayed, either through comedic devices or by highlighting his cynical and manipulative nature. He was dressed in a blue knee-length teddy-boy jacket, with black greased-back hair, leaving the audience in no doubt that this is, at best, an unlikeable villain. Playing the role was the American tenor, John Osborn, and a fine job he did too! Notwithstanding Auber’s apparently light score, the role of Fra Diavolo is a very demanding one. In Act three, Diavolo appears in a reflective mood, musing on his life as a bandit in the aria, “Je vois marcher souls ma bannière.” Requiring great vocal skill, with frequent changes in tempo and register, as well as passages of florid ornamentation, Osborn must present Diavolo as a multi-layered character. It is a real bravura aria, a challenge to any tenor. Moreover, the director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti had Osborn running on the spot to give the impression of him running down a street. Osborn’s performance was sparkling, his voice beautifully characterizing the bandit, who is now visualizing himself as a champion of the downtrodden. With only one noticeable lapse, in which he unsurprisingly struggled for air, he despatched the aria with a great deal of swagger, befitting of the confident bandit himself. Throughout the evening Osborn sang with a degree of abandon that added to the lyricism of his portrayal, yet he was always in control, and made a powerful impression, subtly coloring his voice to heighten the characterization, whether he was threatening to kill his own henchmen, in which his voice was tinged with venom or employing a sweeter tone as in his seduction of Lady Pamela.
Other Dominant Performances
Fra Diavolo’s nemesis Lorenzo, the love-struck carabiniere, was played by Giorgio Misseri. Misseri was the perfect foil to Osborn’s Diavolo, his voice always controlled and constrained, deliberately acting out the part in a rather dull, meaningful and plodding manner, thus highlighting the contrast between the two characters. He sang the part well, displaying a pleasing timbre, although his Act three romance, “Pour toujours, disait-elle,” was slightly disappointing, owing to the palpable effort and concentration he put into its delivery which detracted from its impact. A little less effort and a little more freedom would probably have met with more success.
Zerline, the innkeepers daughter, was delightfully played by Anna Maria Sarra. Always morally upright and fiercely loyal to Lorenzo, Serra convinced in the role. Initially, a little underpowered she quickly grew into the role, producing some very fine singing. Her aria, at the beginning of the second act, “Ne craigez rien, Milord… Quel bonheur je respire, ” probably displaying her talents at their best. She possesses a strong brightly colored soprano, consistent throughout her range, with a fine coloratura, and is able to hold the top notes without compromising the sound.
Roberto di Candia, playing Lord Rocburg, put in a superb acting and singing performance. He possesses a strong, warm baritone, which he used well to characterize the bumptious and put-upon English Lord. His ability to phrase the vocal line was wonderfully displayed in depicting his changing mood and character; anger, exasperation, pomposity, were all finely drawn. His wife, Lady Pamela, played by Sonia Ganassi, was also beautifully essayed, bringing out the comedic nature of the character at every opportunity. Possessing a strong mezzo she put in a polished performance, displaying solid technique with a refined vocal palette.
Fra Diavolo’s two partners-in-crime, Beppo and Giacomo were played by Nicola Pamio and Jean Luc Ballestra. Both were convincing in their roles as low-life, cowardly and sentimental criminals, who were easily managed by the unscrupulous Fra Diavolo. Their voices blended well with Osborn and produced well-balanced fine ensemble singing. The minor role of Mathéo, the innkeeper, was undertaken by Alessio Verna who also gave an impressive performance, displaying a strong and secure technique.
Roberto Gabbiani, the chorus master, had drilled the chorus well, eliciting an energetic, lively and vibrant sound, which they complemented with some wonderfully co-ordinated acting, producing some memorable scenes.
Describing the score akin to “a French soufflé,” the conductor Rory Macdonald produced a light reading, eliciting delicate and colorful textures form the Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. In particular, its smooth dance-like rhythms, accompanied by dancers, were beautifully delivered and choreographed. By his own admission, he wanted to highlight the many concertati sections in the score, which he achieved through an orchestral balance that gave the necessary space to its individual sections, producing a subtle, elegant and finely-detailed sound. However, his studied approach also led to a somewhat restrained reading, which compromised its vibrancy and drive, losing some of the piece’s bounce and momentum in the process. Furthermore, the balance between the orchestra and the stage was occasionally compromised, at which times the voices were allowed to overwhelm the orchestra, such was Macdonald’s concern to soften the sound in order to promote the vocal ensembles. Neither criticism should, however, be overstated.
Balancing Violence & Comedy
Under the direction of Corsetti, supported by Massimo Troncanetti (scenography), Igor Renzetti, Alessandra Solimene and Lorenzo Bruno (video), Francesco Esposito (costumes) and Marco Giusti (lighting), “Fra Diavolo” was given an innovative and imaginative staging. Set in a 1950s seaside village consisting of oddly shaped houses, the drama takes place against a background of coastal scenes, with costumes typical of the period. The first and third acts were set outside the inn, and the second act, which was particularly well designed, was set inside the inn, with all the rooms visible, so that it was possible to watch all the shenanigans going on behind closed doors. Extensive use was made of colorful and lively video images, which were projected onto the background of the stage and onto the surfaces of the set. The moving images were used mainly, although not exclusively, to carry the work’s comedic elements, which they did so very effectively. For example, when Lord Rocburg sings about the superior Englishman abroad, a projected hot air balloon really gives the impression of him standing in it, whilst Lady Pamela sits in the projected image of an early airplane. Eventually, despite his bluster, the plane crashes and the hot air ballon deflates. It was simple, effective and amusing.
It is not an easy task to combine comedy with serious violence in a convincing manner, yet Corsetti managed to play out both elements in an imaginative way so that they successfully supported each other in the creation of a captivating and amusing drama. In the overture, we see Lord Rocburg and Lady Pamela driving along through the countryside (video projections, of course). It appeared to be a tranquil scene in which Lady Pamela hammed it up as the passenger. As the music darkens, the travelers are attacked by large black hands from all sides (further video projections). Eventually, the frightened pair abandon the car and make a run for it. So it is that we learn about the robbery and the dark forces that underlie the work. The Carabinieri are gently mocked by Corsetti throughout the performance, which being an Italian pastime, resonated well with the audience. We see them, for example, standing as a human pyramid riding on a boat (another video projection), and marching off the stage in slapstick formation. In the final scene, Fra Diavolo is shot dead as he is entrapped by the Carabinieri – a vicious ending, and not one written into the work by Auber and Scribe, but perfectly in line with the production’s values, and very effective too.
The production was also innovative in a very literal sense. It employed a 3D photocopying system, created by WASP, a leading company in the sector, to manufacture the sets. Although from an audience perspective there was little to distinguish them from traditional sets it is very encouraging to see a company embracing new technologies, especially when the technology uses renewable resources, in this case, to create the scenery.
Opera Roma’s production of “Fra Diavolo” certainly made for a splendid and enjoyable evening’s entertainment, and in the process made a good case for its rehabilitation into the mainstream repertoire. The production, thanks to Corsetti, was an excellent example of how comedy and violence can be simultaneously highlighted and combined to produce a successful staging, without diminishing the impact of either.