I have long been fascinated by French grand opera, the style which developed between Auber's La Muette de Portici and Verdi's operas for Paris in the 1850's. It is a style which is still not really understood in terms of modern performance and the best known operas of the genre are those where major composers had to interact with the Parisian genre: Donizetti's La Favourite, Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Verdi's Don Carlos and Wagner's Rienzi. Covent Garden gave a concert performance of Halevy's La Juive a few years ago (2006), but their new production of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable was their first staging of a French grand opera from this period. Well, the first staging since the war. In fact, the performance we attended on 9 December of Robert le Diable though it was the 2nd performance of this production was Covent Garden's 75th performance of the work. In the 19th century, Meyerbeer's operas were incredibly popular. So Laurent Pelly's production was our chance to find out whether Meyebeer's operas work on stage today.
After attending the performance there was no question that Covent Garden had belief in the work, the cast that they assembled was fine indeed, despite the recent alarums and excursions (Marina Poplavskaya's health scare and the replacement of Jennifer Rowley by Patrizia Ciofi). But the question is, does director Laurent Pelly actually like the opera and even believe in it? Frankly, after this production I'm not sure.
For the first two acts the biggest directorial reference seems to have been Spamalot. Chantal Thomas's set designs (with costumes by Laurent Pelly and were interestingly based on heraldry and medieval imagery, with reference to heraldic beasts and colours. This would give an interesting take on the medieval jousting which forms the basis for the work. But Pelly has taken his cue from the bouncy rhythms of Meybeer's music, particularly the choruses. His stylised mass movement for the choruses were pure operetta. One thing to bear in mind is that Pelly did a pair of influential Offenbach operetta productions in Paris, La Belle Helene and La Grand Duchesse de Gerolstein. And one of the things that Offenbach satirises is the Meyerbeer style.
If you talk to singers, the gap between a performance of a comic opera and a serious one is quite narrow. This has meant that, for instance, it took some time for the serious operas of Rossini and Donizetti to become re-established because in style they were a bit too close to the composers' popular comic operas. I think that we still have this problem with Meyerbeer.
During the first two acts, we meet Robert (Brian Hymel) and his friend Bertram (John Relyea). Robert has come to Palermo to take part in a tournament. He meets his foster sister Alice (Marina Poplavskaya) and her beloved the minstrel Raimbaut (Jean-Francois Borras). Alice brings Robert the news that Robert's mother has died. We also learn that there is a story that Robert's father as a devil. Bertram encourages Robert to gamble and he loses his money and his armour.
The tournament is for the hand of the Princesse Isabelle (Patrizia Ciofi), though she is still in love with Robert. When Alice brings her a message from him, she agrees to meet him and gives him another set of armour. But then Bertram tells Robert that the Prince of Granada wants to have one-to-one combat. Robert goes off and misses the tournament, though the challenge is a phantom one, organised by Bertram (who is not what he seems!).
Pelly's production, with Chantal Thomas's set designs, was large and complex. Princesse Isabelle's castle was miniature version whose components moved. Here we met another limitation of the production, the seeming reliance on supers to move everything, the gaps between scenes, and the amazing noises that came from backstage during scene changes. Quite simply, it did not come across as a production which was custom built for the Covent Garden stage.
Princesse Isabelle's castle was also diminutive, not imposing and hardly terribly serious especially when Ciofi was encouraged to indulge in overdone attitudes. For the tournament, the stage opened out quite spectacularly, the women of the chorus were dressed in heraldic colours (with very exaggerated wimples) matching those of the dummy horses. But then the horses were carried in in comic manner, and the the knights winched onto them to great amusement.
Things improved in act 3, as here the plot takes a serious gothic turn. We see Bertram seducing Raimbaut with gold, so Raimbaut runs off and deserts Alice. Bertram then communes with the spirits of Hell, and does so spectacularly. Thomas's sets referenced black and white engravings of mountains, but when the off stage chorus from hell starts, we see images of hell through the mountains. Then Alice has a glorious solo, and over hears Bertram's dealings with Hell, especially the news that Bertram has until the end of that day to snare Robert, and if he fails he must return.
One of the problems with operas of this period, especially those like Robert le Diable whose librettos were written by Eugene Scribe, is their heavy reliance on the delayed action plot; something happens in each act to stop the lovers getting together, to prolong the action; the sort of plots which rely on people keeping their mouths shut and not saying anything. So you do require a willing suspension of disbelief.
The concluding section of this act was, of course, the ballet. Though these were necessary at the Paris Opera, care was always taken to integrate them into the action. Here the ballet is of ghosts of nuns, lascivious ones who did not live a good religious life. Lionel Hoche's choreography was very effective and did not send the piece up. Whilst the ballet no-longer astonishes, as it did at its premiere, it did make good theatre.
Act 4 saw us return to Princesse Isabelle's toy-town castle for her wedding to the Prince of Granada. This was interrupted by Robert, who stops everyone with the magic branch that he got in act 3 (the reason he went to the cloister inhabited by the ghostly nuns). There is a long scene between Robert and Isabelle including a stunning solo for Isabelle, beautifully rendered by Ciofi. Robert gives in and breaks the magic branch.
In act 5 Robert has fled to a monastery for sanctuary. He is followed by Bertram who reveals that he is Robert's father, and persuades Robert to sign a compact which would make Robert his for eternity. In the nick of time Alice appears, tries to persuade Robert not to, produces his mother's will which describes Bertram as her vile seduces. Robert hesitates. Cue a wonderful closing trio, which was clearly an influence on Gounod when writing Faust. Unfortunately Pelly and Thomas decided to highlight the schematic nature of this by bringing on a huge beast of hell with a great gaping mouth, for Bertram, and bringing Alice on amidst clouds like the Virgin. The effect was to make risible a moment with seems dramaturgically awkward to modern dramatic sensibilities. Thank goodness for the music.
Bryan Hymel was tirelessly brilliant as Robert. The role is a long one and requires the singer to produce a steady stream of high notes. But Hymel was certainly not all bluster, he also produced some lovely quiet singing as well. In fact, what impressed most was the control that he exerted throughout the opera, giving the music the sophisticated shape that it needs. It is role which helps put Berlioz's Aeneas into context, and Hymel was simply brilliant. Singing this music does require power and stamina, but also the sort of focus and flexibility that Wagner singing does not nowadays, no wonder great singing of 19th century French opera is almost a lost art. Hymel demonstrated just how it should be done. Bravo indeed.
Marina Poplavskaya was announced, during the second interval, as suffering from laryngitis. Ironically this seemed to free up her voice. Judging by her performance, I think that this is a role that suits her voice and would love to hear her sing it in full health. Dramatically she was always appealing and brought her act 3 solo and big scene with Bertram off well.
John Relyea was superbly evil as Bertram, both the music and his performance referenced Gounod's Mefistofeles and Offenbach's villains in Contes d'Hoffmann, which is no bad thing. Relyea was no pantomime villain, but a darkly complex being, sung with a gloriously dark hued voice. Fatally seductive of tone, he showed why Robert and everyone else were seduced by him; to a certain extent act 3 was his and he rather made it the musical and dramatic centre piece of the opera.
Patrizia Ciofi was Princesse Isabelle, the necessary love interest, but the important relationships in Robert's life are with Bertram and with Alice. Ciofi was nicely poised in Isabelle's dizzying roulades in act 2 (in French grand opera of the period, Princesses were usually empty headed and conversed in roulades), with only a couple of strained top notes. And her account of Isabelle's solo in act 4 was one of the high points of the evening, and certainly deserved to change Robert's mind (which it did).
Jean Francois Borras impressed as Raimbaut, though the role disappears after his big scene in act 3, which was a shame. He was both music and charming, we wanted to hear more of him. Nicola Courjal was Alberti, a knight who crops up as herald at key moments, he too impressed. It is always lovely hearing this sort of music sung in French by Francophones.
The rest of the smaller roles were nicely taken by Jette Parker Young Artists, David Butt Philip, Pablo Bemsch, Ashley Riches, Jihoon Kim and Dusica Bijelic.
Conductor Daniel Oren over saw things admirably, ensuring that the large-scale 5-act edifice kept its shape. We never delayed long, and there were few longeurs. I am not sure that Oren loves this music, but he certainly got a strong performance from cast, chorus and orchestra.
And the music? Meyebeer's style seems familiar because it was referenced by so many later 19th century composers, his operas were a reference point in the 19th century. At times the music can seem alarmingly trite with the bouncy tunes. To a certain extent, this is a problem of perception, one that we had with 19th century Italian opera. But it also helps to put the opera in context. Meyerbeer wrote it in 1830. Weber died in 1826, Rossini's Guillaume Tell debuted in 1829, Donizetti wrote Anna Bolena in 1830 and Bellini I Capuletti e i Montecchi. Meyerbeer's music has some lovely moments, is finely and interestingly constructed and makes a vivid evening in the theatre. Whilst it does not quite stand on the level of the greatest of his Italian contemporaries, it does not deserve the neglect that it gets.
It would be nice to think that Covent Garden might be persuaded to revive this, with the comic elements in acts 1 and 2 played down. What we saw had the bones of a decent production of the opera, unfortunately overlayed by comedy. What made it was the musical performance.
And the answer to the question, does Robert le Diable work in the theatre. I think so, certainly the last three acts developed a nice dramatic momentum, but thanks to the equivocal production the jury is still out.
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