209. Fra Diavolo (Auber)

  • Opéra-comique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
  • Libretto : Eugène Scribe
  • First performed : Opéra-Comique (Salle Ventadour), 28 January 1830

FRA DIAVOLO, A bandit chief, disguised as the Marquis San MarcoTenorJean-Baptiste-Marie Chollet
MILORD Cockburn, An English travellerTenorLouis-Auguste Féréol
Lady PAMELA, His wifeSopranoMarie-Julienne Boulanger
LORENZO, A brigadier of the CarabinieriTenorThéodore-Étienne Moraeu-Sainti
MATTEO, An innkeeperBassHenri
ZERLINE, His daughterSopranoGeneviève-Aimée-Zoé Prévost
GIACOMO, Fra Diavolo’s henchmanBassFargueil
BEPPO, Fra Diavolo’s henchmanTenorBelnie

SETTING: Terracina, Italy, during the Restoration, around 1830.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Auber and Scribe’s operas are full of bandits and brigands (and even, in the ballet Marco Spada, dancing bandits). Bourgeois audiences could enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching a clever rogue hoodwink the well-to-do, and cock a snook at the forces of authority, with the comfortable knowledge that the criminal would either be caught at the end, or turn out to be a nobleman gone wrong, and so pardoned. Few of these brigands, however, are as charming, as gallant, or as ruthless as Fra Diavolo, the antihero of one of Auber’s most popular opéras-comiques.

“History describes Fra Diavolo as a savage and coarse brigand,” wrote Le Figaro; “here, he is an honest thief, a villain of good taste, who appears graceful, who pays court to the ladies, and who speaks like a member of high society. M. Scribe makes him seem a rose-coloured bandit, whom you would take, upon my word, for a very decent man, were it not for a few tricks, such as stealing jewels, caskets, billets, and other kind actions which are seldom practiced among well-bred people. Basically, under his seductive exterior, this thief hides a heart of rock.”

Disguised as M. le Marquis, Fra Diavolo preys on the trusting guests at an inn in Terracina, Italy. He organises a raid on the coach of two English aristocrats, and steals their jewels and luggage. When the carabinieri return the loot, he flirts with the Milady, and steals her medallion. He plots to steal the jewels again – and the dowry of Zerline the innkeeper’s daughter, into the bargain, and cap it off with her murder. Discovered in compromising circumstances in a woman’s bedroom at night, he pretends he was there for a romantic assignation, and persuades a jealous lover and an equally jealous husband that their women are faithless. He proposes a duel the next morning with each man – whereupon the brigands will fall on the two gullible men, and murder them – but he falls instead into the trap he has set, and is brought to justice.

Barbot as Fra Diavolo, 1857. Source: Gallica (BnF)

“The libretto is one of the most entertaining by the prolific vaudevillist [Eugène Scribe], and the score one of M. Auber’s best,” wrote Félix Clément in 1869. “The melodies have retained, after 30 years of success, a freshness which proves the true originality of the master.”

By that time, Fra Diavolo had already been performed more than 500 times at the Opéra-Comique, and would be performed 893 times by 1911. It was beloved in Germany, performed 177 times in Berlin alone. Laurel and Hardy even made a film of it in the 1930s. More recently, Letellier (2010:203) thought Auber “reached a height which he seldom achieved again… One is immediately struck b the vividness of the music, the diversity of the musical imagination, it sustained evocation of colour, its genuine humour”. But this popular favourite was greeted with surprising indifference in 1830.

Le Corsaire (29 January 1830) predicted that Fra Diavolo would be one of Auber’s most beautiful claims to glory; his inspirations were fresh and graceful, and its success in Europe would match that of Boieldieu’s Dame blanche. Similarly, Le Figaro (29 January 1830) thought that while the plot was not very new or piquant, but rather commonplace, songs full of grace, freshness, and colour pleased the audience, and there were plenty of pretty ideas. Scornful amateurs might call it ‘small music’, but that was what the Opéra-Comique audience enjoyed, and Auber also knew how to make his small music grand.

Fétis (Revue musicale) thought the multiplicity of couplets, romances, and little arias, however elegant, and the absence of duets or developed arias, made the work resemble too much a vaudeville.

Other important papers were hostile. Le Journal des débats (30 January 1830) considered Fra Diavolo markedly inferior to La Muette de Portici or La Fiancée; it was probably hastily produced to assist the Opéra-Comique. “This time, they were wrong; let’s hope they get a brilliant revenge soon, and their proven talent promises it.” Auber’s music was written with care, as far as style was concerned; a quintet in Act I was agreeable and piquant, although the means employed were not new, and the last finale was treated with great skill. For the rest: “A series of very insignificant songs, a jolly chorus of soldiers, a very mediocre trio, an Act I finale where the weak sounds of a few worn-out voices could not emerge through the accompaniment, an aria written for Chollet [Fra Diavolo].” The singing at that theatre was bad – enough, the critic suggested, for the police to intervene if that level of performance continued – and it was rare to find music there.

Similarly, Le Constitutionnel (30 January 1830) grudgingly reckoned Fra Diavolo a success, but wondered if librettist and musician each relied on the other for that success: Scribe’s expenditure of wit and dramatic talent was parsimonious, while Auber had some difficulty heating up this canvas with his music. Several of his motifs, his arias, appear constrained, and leave more to be desired for freshness and imagination. However, some pieces had the freshness, the charm, and the sweetness of the composer of Emma. Everything was arranged with great taste; the arrangements were pretty; and, as it was impossible not to find attractions in a work by Scribe and Auber, this one lacked neither approvers nor applause.

Le Journal des débats suggested that only the paid claque in the parterre pretended to enjoy the opera; throughout the performance, they applauded noisily, but “their paid admiration contrasted singularly with the repose and silence of the rest of the house”. (“Not a single murmur, much applause from the floor and from the second gallery,” observed the Courrier français (30 January 1830). “The spectators, placed in the boxes, did not manifest their opinion in an ostensible manner; but who says nothing, tacitly agrees (Qui ne dit mot, consent); we must therefore believe they approved the work.”)


The overture in D is a gem. A series of drumrolls (following Rossini’s Gazza ladra) leads into a jaunty allegro maestoso section; the second part is a brilliant allegro. The overture comes from Auber’s early opera, Vendôme en Espagne (1823).

Source: Gallica (BnF)

Act I opens in the inn courtyard. The bustling introduction (No. 1) deftly sets the scene: a drinking chorus of carabinieri, who intend to capture the notorious bandit Fra Diavolo; a brief scene between Zerline, the innkeeper’s daughter, and Lorenzo, the carabinieri’s brigadier, who cannot marry because her father wants her to marry a rich man; and a gunshot brings on Lord Cockburn and his wife Pamela, in a flurry of agitated coloratura, whose coach has been robbed, and their diamonds stolen. Milord’s couplets (No. 2) establish his irritable character (“Je voulais pas … Goddam ! »), fed up with his wife’s coquetteries. Fra Diavolo (posing as the Marquis San Marco) arrives by coach; the quintetto (No. 3), ‘Un landau qui s’arrête’, is an excellent, well-constructed Rossinian ensemble; the first section is a syllabic andantino, expressing surprise, while the brigand’s cynical amusement (‘La bonne folie’) launches the faster second section. Zerline’s couplets (No. 4), ‘Voyez sur cette roche’, tell the legend of Fra Diavolo, perhaps the opera’s best- known number; he himself sings the third verse – a warning and a clue to his identity. (A trio, ‘Vive la joie’, is cut.) Fra Diavolo and Pamela sing a barcarolle while he flirts with her and claims her medallion; the arrival of her suspicious husband turns it into a patter trio, with Rossinian élan (No. 5: ‘Oui, je vais commander le punch’). The Act I finale (No. 6) begins with the military march from the overture; Lorenzo and his soldiers return in triumph, having killed 20 brigands, and reclaimed the Cockburns’ jewels. A grateful Pamela presents Zerline with a dowry to marry Lorenzo. Fra Diavolo is thwarted but not defeated; he and his cronies plan to steal the diamonds and the dowry that evening.

Act II takes place in Zerline’s bedroom. She expresses her relief at being alone, without the nervous, fussy Milord, in a fioriture-laden allegro moderato cavatine, ‘Quel bonheur je respire’ (No. 7). Milord and Pamela go to their rooms; it is midnight, and he wants to sleep, to Pamela’s annoyance; Zerline hopes her marriage won’t turn out like that after a year (No. 8 – Trio: ‘Allons, ma femme, allons dormir’). Now the household is asleep, Fra Diavolo decides to strike. The signal to his men is a Barcarolle (No. 8), ‘Agnès la jouvencelle’ – a sly, slinking andantino number sung by Nicolai Gedda in falsetto.

Source: Gallica (BnF)

Zerline undresses, unaware that she is being watched by the brigands. Zerline’s Air and Scène (No. 10), ‘Oui, c’est demain’, is excellent throughout: her undressing aria, with what seem almost Haydnesque touches of orchestration; her prayer; and the bandits’ staccato trio. Zerline’s aria, thought Le Corsaire, offered a series of suave songs and modulations. The banda (a very Italian touch!) heralds the arrival of the carabinieri. In the Finale (No. 11), the Marquis is discovered coming out of Zerline’s bedroom; he gets out of the scrape by pretending he was there for a romantic assignation, and the two outraged men challenge him to a duel the next day. He escapes in the confusion.

Source: Gallica (BnF)

Act III begins with an Entr’acte, based on the Fra Diavolo ballad. In his aria, ‘Je vois marcher sous ma bannière’ (No. 12), Fra Diavolo sings of the joys of a bandit’s life; it is a tenor cousin of the buffo patter arias in Rossini, and allows the tenor to show off his acting skills, impersonating the brigand’s victims. Letellier (204) considers it “a scintillating tour de force in several movements, requiring lyricism of a high order, an extended tessitura, head voice and falsetto comic facility if the actor is to realize its potential”. (Fétis thought it rather feeble.)

Zerline’s father wants her to marry a rich peasant that day; the peasants sing a chorus, ‘C’est grande fête’ (No. 13), as they prepare the inn; it is full of Italian colour. Le Figaro called it “a real masterpiece of suavity, elegance, and dramatic imitation. It is one of those pieces which mark an epoch in a composer’s life; M. Auber, we believe, has never written anything so remarkable.” Lorenzo’s attractive romance, ‘Pour toujours, disait-elle’ (No. 14), expresses both his jealousy and his love of Zerline. She, however, discovers two of the brigand’s cronies – they foolishly sing a phrase from her Act II aria – and Fra Diavolo is lured into a trap and arrested. Now all has been cleared up, and Lorenzo rewarded for capturing the brigands, Zerline can marry Lorenzo. In the finale (No. 15), the four good characters sing the ballad as a quartet, and the opera ends with a chorus of ‘Victoire!’.

Source: Gallica (BnF)

Fra Diavolo is still a work that can entertain modern audiences, as a 2017 production in Rome starring John Osborn showed.


RECORDINGS

Nicolaï Gedda (Fra Diavolo), Mady Mesplé (Zerline), Jane Berbié (Pamela), and Jules Bastin (Matteo), with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, conducted by Marc Soustrot, 1984, EMI.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Le Corsaire, 29 January 1830
  • Le Figaro, 29 January 1830
  • Le Constitutionnel, 30 January 1830
  • Le Courrier français, 30 January 1830
  • X.X.X., Journal des débats, 30 January 1830
  • Fétis, Revue musicale, 1830, Tome I
  • Robert Ignatius Letellier¸ Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: The Man and His Music, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010

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