Thursday, 21 December 2017

Auber - Fra Diavolo (Rome, 2017)

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber - Fra Diavolo

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, 2017

Rory Macdonald, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, John Osborn, Roberto de Candia, Sonia Ganassi, Giorgio Misseri, Alessio Verna, Anna Maria Sarra, Jean Luc Ballestra, Nicola Pamio

Culturebox - 17 October 2017

Aside from its historical interest, it's debatable that Auber's once celebrated Fra Diavolo has much to offer the world of opera today. It still has something to offer an audience however and those are the same values that it held right back when it was first performed; entertainment. The Rome Opera production certainly presents Auber's opéra-comique with that intention as its primary focus, finding a suitable presentation that captures the work's immodest sense of modesty, while also managing to have something contemporary and even forward-looking in theatrical staging.

If it doesn't have anything to offer the future of opera, Auber's Fra Diavolo has nonetheless already made its impact. First performed in 1830, Auber's simple melodies and uncomplicated drama would determine the direction of popular French opéra-comique and embody many of the characteristics that are associated with it. With the Rome production's colourful sets and costumes, everything is there for an entertaining evening of romantic comedy, singing and dancing.

Fra Diavolo sets out its intentions right from the outset, with a drinking song and a military march combined. The soldiers are drinking because that's part of the way of military life, but they are also drowning their sorrows as the inn-keeper's daughter Zerline is getting married the next day. The captain Lorenzo in particular isn't happy as he and Zerline had romantic aspirations, but they were doomed to come to nothing since Zerline's father has made plans to marry her to a rich man.

That's the romantic background taken care of in a not terribly original manner and it's inevitably going to have predictable twists and turn of fortune. The drama that will drive this relates of course to the actions of Fra Diavolo, a notorious bandit who operates in the region. Milord and Milady Rocburg, an English couple on holiday touring Italy have already encountered this notorious bandit on their travels and have had all their belongings stolen. They have however managed to keep their best jewels hidden, but they are unaware that Fra Diavolo has followed them to the inn.

There's room for a minor romantic entanglement there too. Just to spice things up a little further, the Marquis they encountered at their last stop has just arrived at the inn. Milord isn't happy that the Marquis has been unwelcome paying attention to his wife and he continues serenading her now at the inn. Of course, we all know that the Marquis is none other than Fra Diavolo in disguise, and that he is using his charms to seduce the noble lady into parting with the secret of where their expensive jewellery is hidden.

Meanwhile Captain Lorenzo and his troops have stumbled on the bandits den and recovered the stolen goods (but not the bandits), and the reward puts him into contention again for the hand of Zerline. Fra Diavolo however is so confident of his charms and his disguise that he is sure that he can steal back the loot and increase his haul that night. The drama - what little there is of it between romantic charms and villainous swagger - tends to lose its way in the second half of the opera. The Marquis's night-time wanderings are discovered and questioned, only for him to sow discord by pretending that his inclinations are more romantic than criminal, but it rallies at the end for the unmasking and capture of the notorious Fra Diavolo.

The comic villainy and romantic twists of Auber's Fra Diavolo set the tone and the standard for much of the opéra-comique that follows, his influence particularly evident in Jacques Offenbach and not just in Les Brigandes. The influence on Auber however is just as evidently the lighter comic work of Giacomo Rossini, and Auber's music carries the same light, simple rhythms that are melodic, buoyant and uplifting. Hardly sophisticated, they are nevertheless conducted here in the Rome production by Rory Macdonald with a confident swagger and an emphatic stridency where required. Entertainment is the entire raison d'être of Fra Diavolo, and the musical performance captures that well.

As does the set design in Giorgio Barberio Corsetti's production. Extensive use is made of cartoon imagery projected onto the versatile backdrops (created by Corsetti with designer Marco Troncanetti using 3-D printers) that permit the set to be transformed instantly from a moving car journey to a balloon ride, from a hotel with a cutaway showing individual rooms to a gondola ride in a Venice with shark-infested canals. It's a riot of colour with larger than life illustrations that perfectly match the tone and spirit of the work. That is also captured well in John Osborn's reliably impressive performance as Fra Diavolo. Not quite as agile with the French recitative and singing, Sonia Ganassi and Roberto de Candia are great fun nonetheless as Lord and Lady Rocburg. Anna Maria Sarra is a bright Zerline (replacing the billed Pretty Yende who dropped out) and Giorgio Misseri also notable as Alfredo.

Links: Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, Culturebox, YouTube