For his new production of Auber's light-hearted Fra Diavolo, the director of the sumptuously refurbished Opéra Comique, Jérome Deschamps, has opted for a simple approach.
Elegantly conceived and faithful to a work that his house has somewhere in its bones – it was put on practically every season from 1830 to 1900 – Déschamps clearly subscribes to the 'less is more' directorial philosophy.
The result is refreshing. Stage décor is minimal to the point of austerity: bare wooden boards, the vague suggestion of countryside in the distance and no more than a bed, a box hedge, a sapling of a tree and a series of wine racks on wheels, behind which Napoleonic soldiers can hide.
As a result, the stage always feels unencumbered and spacious and the subtle lighting of Rémi Nicolas provides all the atmosphere we need. Costumes are in period and the musical edition used is almost exactly the Troupenas score of 1830 – with one exception, to which I shall return.
The result is a production that feels light and airy – the whole piece breathes naturally and allows the cast to do what they ought to be allowed to do: concentrate on their singing and musical characterisation. And this is where the Deschamps/Rhorer Fra Diavolo brushes up like new: musically it is scrupulously prepared, well rehearsed and as a result, at the premiere on Sunday afternoon, a triumph. The Paris musical establishment were there in force and the broad smiles on many a face in Place Boieldieu afterwards told their own story.
Jérémie Rhorer conducted his own period orchestra, Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, and confirmed the impression he has been making of a rising star in the French operatic firmament. Having worked with William Christie and with Marc Minkowski, he is very much attuned to the different dynamic that period instruments provide, with a much softer, warmer string sound and with scope for the woodwind and brass to come incisively to the fore. The overture gave us a great foretaste of all that was to come: huge variation in dynamic range, from ppp (almost to the point of inaudibility) to plump, crashing crescendi reminding us of the military band music that constantly underpins Auber's score. But everything was beautifully controlled and the orchestra played as if they were listening carefully to each other. This was a witty and elegant start to the proceedings.
The second element that impressed immediately was the chorus, made up here of the chamber choir Les Eléments (established in 1997 by conductor Joel Suhubiette). Stage actors they are not, and the chorus work was largely static onstage, but the sound was clean and focused, articulation excellent and rapport between pit and stage exemplary throughout. So with orchestra and chorus working as one, the stage was set for a fun evening.
Kenneth Tarver first impressed me when I heard his Fenton at Covent Garden, and in the title role here he has a part tailor-made to his strengths: a full open tenor sound with a ring to it in the upper register, an ability to articulate the coloratura and passagework deftly and rhythmically, and a dangerously attractive stage presence. Lithe in movement and light on his feet, he embodied the dangerous rogue that Fra Diavolo is supposed to be. His Act Three apologia for a bandit's life and calling, 'J'ai revu nos amis' was a marvellous bravura piece of singing, rightly applauded to the rafters! Deschamps opted incidentally for the later ending to the opera, in which Fra Diavolo is shot dead in a volley of musket fire. With the carabinieri concealed behind one of the innocuous looking wine racks, it worked well as a surprising little coup de théatre.
The younger tenor of the evening, Lorenzo sung by Antonio Figueroa, was a disappointment however. He lacked projection and his sound, although perfectly true and accurate, was simply not big enough for the Opéra Comique. He saved his voice to a degree for the big solo Romance in Act Three, “Pour toujours disait elle”, and this won him some plaudits but the role needs an heroic tenor incisiveness that Figueroa simply lacks at present.
So as the juvenile hero figure, he was pallid.
As Milord and Milady Cockburn, the English couple who are comic butts for much of the proceedings, Marc Molomot and Doris Lamprecht worked well together without really hitting any vocal heights. They excelled however in the ensemble passages, their rhythmic élan driving things forward at an often near madcap pace, but always under full musical control and in witty dialogue with each other and with the orchestra. 'Je voulais bien' was warm and jaunty and although Rohrer had to slow up for the verses of 'Ah quel voyage abominable', the transitions through various gears were precise and spot on. Again, a sure sign of careful and intelligent rehearsal.
That leaves a singer who did hit the vocal heights – Sumi Jo as the landlord's daughter, Zerline. From her opening exchanges with Lorenzo onwards, she never put a foot wrong. And at the start of Act Two, she was given the later, interpolated coloratura aria for Zerline that on this occasion literally brought the house down – a wonderful display of characterful singing that in its final coda took the breath away. As Jo simply stood and acknowledged applause that seemed as if it would never end, we all enjoyed one of those unforgettable operatic 'moments' – the feeling that orchestra, character and technical singer had all fused into one, and nobody wanted it to end.
Weaker cast members apart, this is a Fra Diavolo of many strengths, above all musical ones. The Cercle de l'Harmonie brought out all the colour in Auber's score and the percussionists at times had a field day! Scribe's witty couplets were shown in the surtitles and the audience, even though the diction of some of the non-French cast was sub-optimal, smiled throughout. So in sum, this was a new production of Fra Diavolo of great distinction: the Opéra Comique under Deschamps is clearly on a roll.
Photo Credits: Pierre Grosbois
Fra Diavolo runs at the Opéra Comique until 4 February 2009
Fra Diavolo will be performed in a new English version at Stanley Hall Opera in England on 18, 20 and 21 June 2009
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