Fra Diavolo, Opera by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
Literature, more often than not, is the inspiration for great opera. Fra Diavolo, however, is different. Brother Devil was the alias of Michele Pezza, a ruthless real-life scoundrel with a taste for murder and pillage. Which in fact turned out to be just the skills needed to defend the Kingdom of Naples from Napoleon’s invading forces. Pezza’s military successes against the French, despite his inability to discriminate between right and wrong, became the stuff of legend.
In librettist Eugène Scribe’s masterly hands, Pezza became a Giovannesque figure and the perfect anti-hero for Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s delicious comic opera. There is little doubt, such was the aura that had surrounded Pezza, that there would have been excitement and expectation in Paris when Fra Diavolo was premiered by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Ventadour on 28 January 1830. This was an age when libertines and their exploits were something of a guilty pleasure for theatregoers and lovers of opera alike.
Scribe’s Fra Diavolo is a highwayman just two steps short of kleptomania. His pursuit of a couple of English holidaymakers, Lord Cockburn and his wife Lady Pamela, lands all three of them at the Terracina Inn. Zerline, the Innkeeper’s daughter, is unhappy with the match her father has made for her. She would rather marry Lorenzo, a soldier who would like nothing better than to catch Diavolo.
Disguised as a Marquis, Diavolo cannot stop stealing. First, Lady Pamela’s locket; next, Zerline’s dowry. Hiding in her bedroom, Giacomo and Beppo, his two partners-in-crime, prove to be more of a hindrance than a help. Chaos ensues and Diavolo only just manages to escape. Zerline, now penniless, is faced with the prospect of a loveless marriage, that is unless Lorenzo can find Diavolo and collect his reward.
Such is the quality of the humour in Fra Diavolo that between its premiere and 1907 it was performed more than nine hundred times at the Opéra-Comique. Even Laurel and Hardy, in the opinion of many the best comedy duo of all time, created their own version of the opera in their 1933 film, The Devil’s Brother (sometimes also known as Fra Diavolo or Bogus Bandits).
Auber’s music fits the narrative like a glove. Cheeky and mischievous, full of light and shade, the composer’s soundtrack combined with Scribe’s brilliant storytelling is everything that musical theatre should be. Notable in particular for its exceptional ensemble singing, Fra Diavolo is as funny and as melodious as anything written by Rossini or Mozart, guaranteeing a splendid time for all at the Teatro Costanzi, the Rome Opera House.