Daniel Francois Esprit Auber is a much neglected opera composer nowadays, certainly in the UK and to a lesser extent in his native France where no more than a handful of his 50-odd operas are currently revived. And yet he is credited with creation of the first grand opera, La Muette de Portici, which Wagner admired particularly and which notched up 505 performances at the Paris Opera between its first performance in 1828 and 1882, and with the even more successful Fra Diavolo of 1830, which had over 900 performances at the Opera Comique by the turn of the century.
Fra Diavolo is as light as gossamer, a genuinely funny tale with a touch of Weber every so often to give it a romantic frisson. Fra Diavolo himself is a sort of Italian Robin Hood, who robs travellers on the highway between Naples and Rome. His men plunder the coach of an eccentric English Lord and his young trophy wife and the couple take refuge at an inn in the village of Terracina. This is also the headquarters of handsome captain Lorenzo and his carabinieri, sent from Rome to capture Fra Diavolo. Lorenzo has fallen instantly for the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter Zerline, but her father wants to marry her off to a rich local farmer. Enter the English couple: enter a mysterious Marquis: enter a couple of ‘pilgrims’ – the stage is set for a folle journee of a different sort as the various strands of the plot are combined, entangled and finally disentangled for the obligatory happy ending. The libretto by Scribe is felicitous and Edward J Dent described Fra Diavolo itself as “one of the most sparkling comic operas ever written”.
For his new production of the piece, the Gaertnerplatz Intendant, Ulrich Peters, has decided to play the opera for laughs: it is a pantomime rather than a comedy of manners. So as the overture plays, he appears onstage and announces over the music that the audience is going to be allowed to vote: should Fra Diavolo be caught and punished at the end or should he be allowed to escape scot free? Cards are distributed for audience participation. All well and good, but Auber’s music for the overture is rather fine – it is the one bit of the opera that has survived in today’s concert repertoire, and it is a musical disruption to have to listen to it simultaneously with a lengthy explanation of a German joke! But the tone once set, continues – if there is a bucket onstage, you can be sure that a character is going to step into it and clunk around the stage for a bit. Subtle it is not.
The scenery and costumes for this German take on Auber are rather fine: Acts One and Three are set in a spacious terrace room with mountains beyond, while Act Two – Zerline’s bedroom – rises from the stage floor on a hydraulic ramp and provides an atmospheric and effective setting for the one bit of near drama in the whole piece (Fra Diavolo’s men are about to murder the sleeping Zerline when Lorenzo and his carabinieri arrive back at the inn and save the day). The look is cheerful, with primary colours in abundance; Zerline wears a dirndl and the overall effect to an English eye is Tyrolean, but there is little to distinguish Milord and Milady from the broker’s man and the pantomime dame, which means that true characterisation goes out of the window. You have to take the show as it is intended: a pretty broad farce with a lot of stage business. The result is a lack of lightness and transparency, qualities that abound in Auber’s witty score and Scribe’s clever libretto, but do not really survive rough treatment of the sort often meted out here.
As Zerline, Sibylla Duffe was the one character who did survive: she has a light, graceful soprano, sang the coloratura accurately and moved elegantly throughout. One moment she was the working peasant girl, serving drinks, clearing tables, running the inn and the next she was a vulnerable young girl alone in her room, praying to the Holy Virgin Mary for safe deliverance of her lover and happiness for both of them. This was an assured performance of great charm. In the title role, Adrian Xhema looked the part and sang Fra Diavolo competently enough, but there was no ring to the voice and nothing that could be described as exciting singing, despite the possibilities that the role offers. This was a bit of a wasted opportunity.
Milord and Milady are character roles and Daniel Fiolka and Rita Kapfhammer went for them in spades: over the top would be a mild way to describe their performances. Milord was of course equipped with a butterfly net, Milady with a Widow Twankey costume that any provincial pantomime would have been delighted to appropriate. Musically neither were that impressive, possibly because they had too many other things on their minds! And musically overall the performance was ragged: massive rallentandi at congested moments, no real sense of line that has to run through the patter songs and passage work to make them coherent wholes. This was all too foursquare, oompaah instead of ooh la la. It was not an idiomatic reading of what is a very French piece.
But despite it all, Auber came through: the stream of melody that he unleashes in Fra Diavolo was there to be heard, and the audience had a good time. So plenty of marks for enterprise, fewer for execution. Less, in the case of this production, would definitely be more.
Fra Diavolo will be performed in a new production at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 25 January 2009
Fra Diavolo will be performed in a new English translation at Stanley Hall Opera in England on 18 June 2009
Photos: Ida Zenna