Italy Auber, Fra Diavolo: Soloists, Orchestra, Chorus and Corps de Ballet of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma / Rory Macdonald (conductor), Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome, 17.10.2017. (RP)
Fra Diavolo – John Osborn
Lord Rocburg – Roberto De Candia
Lady Pamela – Sonia Ganassi
Lorenzo – Giorgio Misseri
Matteo – Alessio Verna
Zerlina – Anna Maria Sarra
Giacomo – Jean Luc Ballestra
Beppo – Nicola Patio
Production: Coproduction with Teatro Massimo di Palermo
Director – Giorgio Barberio Corsetti
Chorus Master – Roberto Gabbiani
Set Design – Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Massimo Troncanetti
Costume Design – Francesco Esposito
Video – Igor Renzetti, Alessandra Solimene, Lorenzo Bruno
Choreography – Roberto Zappalà
Lighting – Marco Giusti
Imagine a time when Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera will have slipped into obscurity and are only revived as historical curiosities. That’s the fate of French composer Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavolo, which debuted at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1830 and was his greatest success. The opera was performed across Europe and translated into German, Italian and English. It held its place in the repertoire until the early twentieth century and found its way to Hollywood, where in 1933 it was made into a movie starring the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.
Fra Diavolo was a real-life Neapolitan bandit who masqueraded as a marquis and made his living robbing tourists. In Auber’s opera he styles himself as a latter-day Robin Hood, but he and his two accomplices, Giacomo and Beppo (Laurel and Hardy in the film), are really just thieves. The plot is enriched by romance: Lorenzo, a poor officer, and Zerlina are in love, but her father insists that she marry a wealthy farmer. Lorenzo restores some stolen jewels to their rightful owner and reaps a substantial reward in return. The unexpected windfall changes the romantic equation until Fra Diavolo runs off with it. He is ambushed in the end, the lovers are united, and there is general rejoicing in the village.
The action is updated here to the 1950s, with the handsome set serving as the outside of the hotel; when reversed, the inside is revealed. In the final act, the set expands to form the town square where the bandit gets his comeuppance. The ingenious use of videos is what makes this production so much fun. As the overture plays, Lord and Lady Rocburg, wealthy English tourists, drive through the idyllic Italian countryside in a bright red convertible, although clusters of nuclear power plants and disintegrating apartment blocks blight the landscape as they near town. The bandit’s menacing eyes loom large when he zeros in on his victims, and large and scary black hands swoop down to relieve them of their riches.
Rossini judged Auber a ‘piccolo musico, ma grande musicista’ (a small musician, but a great maker of music). There is more than a whiff of the great Italian composer’s spirit in Fra Diavolo, which blends French orchestral colors and textures with Italianate melodies. The solo arias are brilliant and virtuosic, while the ensembles are full of musical bonbons. If there are soldiers on stage, you can be sure that they are marching to the sound of trumpets and the beat of the drum. Finales are grand affairs, with everyone on stage and the sopranos tossing off high notes as the curtain falls.
Suited up in dark turquoise with a jaunty hat of the same color, tenor John Osborn was a dandy, as well as a rake and a robber. Diavolo’s Act III aria and recitative was a real show stopper, with Osborn’s burnished tenor caressing Auber’s phrases and blooming into melting high notes. He strolled in place as he sang with buildings passing by, welcomed by his handkerchief-waving admirers. It was a delightful, witty coup de théâtre.
Osborn has real comedic chops too, which he needed to compete with the antics of his two accomplices, Jean Luc Ballestra as Giacomo and Nicola Patio as Beppo, but they weren’t the only ones chewing up the scenery. Sonia Ganassi in bright pink and platinum blond hair was vivacious and funny as Lady Pamela, while Roberto De Candia was her self-satisfied, ineffectual husband. He had snared a rich wife and waxed eloquent about the joys of sleep, much to her dismay. She was obviously keen to do something in bed other than listen to him snore.
Lady Pamela was a romantic at heart, coming to aid of the frustrated young lovers, Anna Maria Sarra as Zerlina and Giorgio Misseri as Lorenzo. Both are young, attractive and talented with fine voices. The one lesson they could learn from the veterans in the cast is to relax and have some fun. It might help free up their high notes. Hers tended towards shrill under pressure, while his thinned out in Lorenzo’s long, arching phrases.
Rory Macdonald doesn’t need to learn that lesson. No stranger to Gilbert & Sullivan, a musical cousin of Auber’s light French opera, he struck the perfect balance between wit and melodrama and led a lively performance of Auber’s frothy score. The Rome Opera’s excellent orchestra and chorus joined in the fun. And what’s a French opera without dancing? In for a penny, in for a pound, as the saying goes.
Tastes change, but the lighthearted charms of Fra Diavolo still delight. As the final curtain fell, a voice behind me sighed ‘deliziosa’. And so it was.