The climax of Auber’s once beloved Fra Diavolo (1830) takes place in the bedroom of Zerline, the innkeeper’s daughter. She undresses for bed, singing of the man she loves (Lorenzo, the police captain) and, pointedly, not of the man her father insists she marry (Francisco, but never mind him. He’s rich—and mute. In an opera, that can’t be good). 

While she disrobes to her scanties, Zerline admires her figure in the glass. (Très français, hein?) What she does not know is that Fra Diavolo, the most ruthless bandit in the kingdom of Naples, with two of his henchmen, is observing her every shimmy (through a window or from behind a screen) and commenting melodiously thereupon.

And you know how, here in Europe, any stage director worth his salt would arrange such a thing: whips, chains, leather bustiers at the very least, perhaps one of the thugs “helping” a horny pal.

But not at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, in the new production that opened Wednesday night! Though in modern dress (I loved the evening gowns on the chorus of merry peasants), with comic book colors and comic book flair (an illustrated explosion is projected every time Diavolo fires his gun—he must be careful to aim it in the right direction for the “bang!” to emerge—the director, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, is content to let Auber be Auber.

Zerline does her dance down to frilly French skivvies—ankles, gentlemen! Gen-u-wine feminine ankles!—while the boys warble from the window. A silly farce staged as a silly farce: what could be more charming?

Oh, and that mute betrothed suitor nobody cares about? Usually he doesn’t even walk on. But Corsetti isn’t going to waste a perfectly good chance to entertain: The Massimo has a fine corps de ballet, and one of the dancers performs it, wiggling to a passing dance tune, expressing joy en route to his wedding. Opportunity, I call it!

The tradition of the sexy outlaw has an ancient history (David in the Book of Samuel is, perhaps, a prototype), and Fra Diavolo was one of its chief operatic avatars – along with Don Giovanni, Zampa, Comte Ory, Ramerrez, Gilbert and Sullivan’s pirates, Romberg’s Sheikh and Hollywood’s con folk of many sexes. Alone of this crew, Fra Diavolo is based on a real figure, who plied his trade from 1800 to 1806 and came to a bad end. In the opera, he is apprehended by handsome Lorenzo; at the Massimo, he is shot. Gomorra has a long influence.

The Teatro Massimo is the third largest opera house in Europe, after Paris and Vienna. Long closed due to the wayward competence of Sicily, Italy’s neglected stepchild, the theater has been spiffily refurbished and hosts not merely opera, ballet and concerts, but also pasticcios for schoolchildren, many of whom take part or sing along. Thus they do not grow up in awe of the enormous premises but think of it as a place to go for a good time—or so it is hoped.

There are guided tours of the theater and the rooftop (but it’s been raining all week, so I did not reach the roof), which looms over ancient Palermo, and you should be aware that the bottom step on the righthand staircase is haunted. You will trip on it if you dare to doubt the existence of the house ghost, a nun whose body was found in the church demolished when the building was constructed.

We first meet the honeymooners Lord Cockburn and Lady Pamela during the overture, zipping through Campagna in a bright red roadster, waving at the yokels (that’s us), when unseen thieves (projections of fists, guns, “BAM”) make off with their luggage and even chunks of the car. In shock, they stagger into a seaside inn. Zerline, the landlord’s daughter, explains they must have been victims of none other than the wicked Fra Diavolo.

Alleviating their shock (at least, Milady’s), a suave marquis turns up and proceeds to serenade both herself and Zerline. (SPOILER! He’s really Fra Diavolo.) And when three men of notorious morals turn up in the sleeping Zerline’s bedroom, well, what can either of her fiancés imagine they were up to? Singing a trio, perhaps? Tell me another. “And where is the cameo that hung around your neck?” Milord demands of Milady. “Elsewhere,” she replies, gamely.

This brightly-hued and animated production of Fra Diavolo may indicate a future when stage directors, who have so long ruled the operatic roost, meet their match: The projection designer is the new master of operatic style. At the Massimo, comic books reign. Guns and fists assault the victims. Question marks hover in the air above Zerline. The very Moon has rolling eyes.

The entrance of the carabinieri is accompanied by waterskiing pyramids of officers and ecstatic flying fish. Plot points are hinted or explained by witty illustrations that appear and vanish against suitable backdrops of laundry (you can project anything onto dirty linen), and the inn spins about to show the many chambers, doors, windows suitable to farce. This show’s popularity in the past owed much to how small the forces need be to perform it in the provinces, but the grandeur of the Massimo is put to fine use.

The “video” is credited to Igor Renzetti, Lorenzo Bruno and Alessandra Solimene. Their illustrations are vivid, witty and appropriate, but they are nearly constant in many scenes. This is MTV opera staging—too much distraction from other things, such as imperfect vocalism. Non-opera-goers may enjoy this sort of in-joke, but for me it was sometimes too much of a muchness. The busy choreography is by Roberto Zappala, the sets by Corsetti and Massimo (no relation) Troncanetti, the clever costumes by Francesco Esposito.

The singing on opening night was less than ideal, and the principal fault lay with Zerline. Desirée Rancatore had a rocky night, pitch awry, ornaments sloppy and her sung French did not sound very French. She has a fine figure and can shake her booty, but she couldn’t shake much of a trill. Mezzo Chiara Amarù, in contrast, possessed the vocal and romantic goods for Lady Pamela, a typical Englishwoman unsatisfied in a cold climate.

Antonino Siragusa preened mightily as the marquis who turns out to be our anti-hero. His serenade was pleasing but without much elegance, his vocal interactions with other characters—coneys or cohorts—more musically endearing. He came into his own with his great third-act apologia, “J’ai revu, mes amis”—perhaps apologia is an improper description; the fellow exults in his faults rather than regrets them. This was cheerfully spectacular, high notes secure, phrasing attractive.

His rival tenor, Giorgio Misseri, the cop who gets the girl, sang his sentimental “Pour toujours, disait-elle, je suis a toi” with far less distraction in the background, allowing us to notice the less than ideal floating legato. It’s a pretty tune and (as librettist Eugène Scribe well knew) one of the characters in a comedy should be sincere so that the whole thing matters, but the point was made perfunctorily.

Marco Filippo Romano sang the foolish Milord (we can tell he’s English because he often cries out, “Goddam!”) with a graceful baritone and sprightly buffo timing. Paolo Orecchia sang the throwaway air of a nobleman fallen on hard times with a lyric grace that would certainly have earned my sympathetic dime, and Giorgio Trucco as Diavolo’s one-henchman-too-many (you can’t trust anyone, as a Neapolitan should know) is a natural comedian with a soaring light tenor. In this performance, the ensembles were the best part.

Auber’s tunes, still fresh and serene, owing as much to Rossini as they inspired in Offenbach, were accompanied by the house orchestra under Jonathan Stockhammer. The piece moved so swiftly, melody upon melody, outlining plot and character, never lingering to outstay their novelty or their welcome, that you could easily believe they were only one hundred years old.