Home Live Theatre Theatre Reviews Bronx Opera returns with Daniel Auber's FRA DIAVOLO
Bronx Opera returns with Daniel Auber's FRA DIAVOLO
Written by Scott Katz   
Friday, 21 January 2011 05:28

Fra-Diavolo-advert_crThe Bronx Opera Company kicks off its 44th Season by performing a rarely seen opera production for its January engagements.  Once again mining the catalog of early-1800s European comic operas, this time we find the company performing Daniel Auber's 1830 opéra comique, Fra Diavolo, under the stage direction of Ben Spierman, the Associate Artistic Director for the Bronx Opera Company.  As usual, the Bronx Opera's adaptation features a full English translation of both dialogue and song.

If the title makes you say, "Fra who?," allow us to elucidate.  Fra Diavolo, ou L'hôtellerie de Terracine (Brother Devil, or The Inn of Terracina) is, as stated, a three-act comic opera by French composer Daniel Auber from a libretto by Eugène Scribe.  The title character is based on an actual bandit, Michele Pezza, who indeed operated in Naples, Italy under the name Fra Diavolo during the years 1800 to 1806.  Auber's opera was first performed in Paris in 1830 before a version, translated into Italian, was done for the London stage in 1857.  Fra Diavolo was Auber's greatest success and one of the most popular operas of the 1800s, but rarely performed in America.  In fact, the Bronx Opera's own 1977 version was likely the last time it was done for stage in the New York area.  However, in an interesting bit of trivia, the opera was adapted domestically as an early feature film vehicle for the comedy team Laurel and Hardy under the title, The Devil's Brother, in 1933.

The plot of Fra Diavolo contains many of the familiar ingredients of comic opera of the era: a woman pledged by her father to marry an unappealing suitor rather than the man she truly loves, con men and thieves, disguised identity, and some light commentary on the mores of the times.

Lorenzo, a solider in the Italian army, finds himself frustrated in his two goals: winning the hand of truelove Zerline and capturing the notorious bandit, Fra Diavolo.  Zerline, whose father owns the inn at which much of the action takes place, has promised his daughter's hand to a richer gentleman approximately 187 years Zerline's senior.

It is said that an author is allowed one coincidence in his work in order to advance the plot, and when Fra Diavolo, in disguise as an English Marquis, soon arrives at the very inn run by Zerline and her father, which already plays host to a French couple, Pierre and Pamela, that has just been robbed by Diavolo's gang, the quota is more than fulfilled.

With all of the players in place, fortune seems to smile on Lorenzo as he is able to retrieve some of the jewels that were stolen from Comtesse Pamela and receives enough reward money to make a suitable dowry to Zerline and they are then scheduled to be married.  As this is still Act 1, this smattering of good luck proves to be short-lived, as, in Act 2, Diavolo and his two bumbling henchmen, Giacomo and Beppo, successfully steal said dowry from Zerline's bedroom while she and the French couple are distracted with singing their numbers.  Lorenzo appears and mistakes Diavolo for someone who has stolen Zerline's affections, causing a rift between them. 

In the closing act, Zerline, sans dowry, is once again pledged to marry the elder gentleman, Francesco.  After a drunken confession by Diavolo's two inept cohorts, the truth begins to emerge, and Lorenzo formulates a plan to capture Fra Diavolo once and for all and marry the fair Zerline.

Fra Diavolo is being performed by the Bronx Opera in a limited engagement of four performances on January 15 and 16 at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx, and on January 22 and 23 at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan.

As is tradition for the Bronx Opera, all the roles are double cast with each troupe performing one Saturday and one Sunday.  The performance we saw, on Sunday, January 16, featured Kirk Dougherty as charming bandit, Fra Diavolo, Rogelio Peñaverde, Jr. as Lorenzo, and Sharon Eisert as Zerline. 

All are fine in their roles, and Dougherty, who must carry the bulk of Acts 1 and 2 on his shoulders does so with seeming ease and brings his role to life with his colorful tenor and a dash of unapologetic, smarmy charm.  Diavolo, who steals from the rich and gives to himself, is a dark mirror image of such gentleman thieves as Robin Hood – seeing life as one big caper, and, in his narcissistic one-dimensionality, likely steals more for the fun of it than anything else.  No act of self-enrichment is beneath Diavolo – from larceny to fraud to attempted murder – and Dougherty, under Spierman's wise direction, breezes through it all with gusto.  The sheer amorality and ambivalence to his own actions keeps Fra Diavolo, both the character and the opera, bounding along at a light pace through its two-and-a-half hour running time.  This is pure, screwball comedy, and nothing in the happenings – up to and including Diavolo and his two henchmen standing over the sleeping Zerline's bed with knives ready to pounce – is to be overly analyzed or taken seriously.

Amplifying the lilting tone are scene-stealing performances by not one, but two, comedic couples: our performance featured Joseph Flaxman and Natalie Megules as the French Count and Countess (an English Lord and Lady in Auber's original) Pierre and Pamela, a middle-aged married couple who have settled comfortably into a routine of squabbling and mutual dislike.  The other couple, Diavolo's cartoonishly incapable assistants, played, as we saw, by Jack Anderson White and Albert Neal, successfully inhabit the roles played by Laurel and Hardy in the feature film and stammer, stagger, and slapstick their way through the plot with inebriated aplomb.  Megules' mezzo, Flaxman's baritone, and White's bass offer rich counterpoints to Dougherty's, Peñaverde's, and Neal's tenors and Eisert's soprano.

We applaud the Bronx Opera for its continued commitment to bringing the arts to the general public in an accessible and affordable manner as well as its work in reaching out to the surrounding community and introducing opera and live theatre to school children at a time when so many educational institutions are cutting back on their arts and music programs.  Supporting local theatre is essential because it provides a much-needed variety of material beyond the greatest hits catalog of operas and plays that get produced on Broadway or at Lincoln Center.  The Bronx Opera performs a rescue mission of sorts by bringing back neglected material that still has potential and life left in it and introduces it to a whole new generation of opera fans.

For ticket buying information and to keep up with the Bronx Opera's past, present, and future productions, visit www.bronxopera.org


(l-r) Sharon Eisert (Zerline), Juan José Ibarra (Matteo, Zerline's father), Kirk Dougherty (Fra Diavolo), Joseph Flaxman (Count Pierre), Natalie Megules (Countess Pamela)
(l-r) Albert Neal (Beppo), Sharon Eisert (Zerline), Jack Anderson White (Giacomo)
(l-r) Kirk Dougherty (Fra Diavolo), Albert Neal (Beppo), Jack Anderson White (Giacomo), Rogelio Peñaverde, Jr. (Lorenzo)
(l-r) Rogelio Peñaverde, Jr. (Lorenzo), Sharon Eisert (Zerline), Natalie Megules (Countess Pamela), Joseph Flaxman (Count Pierre)





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