Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Art of the future? Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable

Robert le Diable at the Paris Opera, Salle le Pelletier
Robert le Diable at the Paris Opera
French Grand Opera is a rather specific sort of of sub-genre of opera that developed in Paris in the late 1820's, partly as a result of the changing audience demographic. Middle-class audiences were not interested in the tragedie lyrique which had been the Paris Opera's standard fare, so the Grand Opera developed. The first acknowledged opera in this genre was Auber's La muette de Portici with a libretto by Scribe. It was Scribe who effectively codified the rules for Grand Opera. But the composer most associated with the genre is Giacomo Meyerbeer, from the spectacular first night of Robert le Diable, his first French language opera, he was the genre's undisputed king.


In many ways Meyerbeer has had a bad deal from history. German born and Italian trained, he had a successful career in Italy before writing his six French operas. But his career overlapped with the rise of nationalism. Whilst no-one ever expected Gluck to write German opera, the fact the Meyerbeer wrote Italian and French operas was used in his disfavour by later critics. Though based partly in Berlin, where he had duties at the Prussian court, Meyerbeer never seems to have considered German opera. Why should he, after all it was only with the operas of his contemporary Weber that a truly German school of opera composition started to take root. Meyerbeer was by temperament a cosmopolitan, and trained in an era when it was natural and logical for opera composers to learn their trade in Italy.

The success of his Italian opera Il crociato in Egitto in Venice (1824) and in Paris (1825) at the Theatre des Italiens brought international success to Meyerbeer. Goethe, for example, thought him the only composer capable of setting Faust. Success also brought an invitation to compose a work for the Opera Comique in Paris. Meyerbeer was teamed with Scribe and a three act opera comique, Robert le Diable, was drafted and composition started. The director of the Opera Comique then relinquished his post and the commission disappeared with him. It turned, instead, into a commission for a five act opera for the Paris Opera.

Recitative replaced sung dialogue, a largely spoken role was transformed into a role for Nicolas-Prosper Levasseur, the Opera's principal bass, and the title role turned into a star role for tenor Adolphe Nourrit. A ballet of ghostly nuns was added to Act 3, and another dance scene in Act 2. Meyerbeer also added the final scene in the cathedral. The result created a sensation and turned Meyerbeer into a superstar. The problem is that nowadays, it is a little difficult to see why.

Nicolas Levasseur as Bertram, Adolphe Nourrit as Robert, and Julie Dorus-Gras as Alice
from the original production of Robert le Diable
French Grand Opera was based around the idea of a conflict of duty played out against the backdrop of an historical event, with the alternation of big public scenes and small private ones. The heroes were generally conflicted, think of Arnold in Guillaume Tell, torn between his love for Mathilde and his duty to his homeland. The operas balance realism with entertainment, and are built on a large scale both in terms of the forces needed and the time taken.

Robert le Diable is based on a Breton legend, but the libretto is based on all sorts of other sources as well. The stroke of genius in Robert le Diable is that Robert's conflict is innate, his mother is a saintly nun and his father Satan.This conflict is acted out on stage in the form of the pull between Alice and Bertram. Alice is Robert's mother's messenger, more a concept than a real person. Bertram, Robert's companion, is in fact Robert's Satanic father. There is crucial scene in Act 5, when Robert is called on to make a choice; this is a standard type of scene in Grand Opera, when the hero finally moves into action (Arnold has Asile hereditaire and his decision to explicitly support the Swiss rebels). But Robert does not choose, he remains in stasis and instead time simply runs out.

Time is, in fact, important in the opera; it all takes place in a single day and Meyerbeer and Scribe organised things very carefully with each scene taking less time than the previous.

The fact that Bertram is Robert's Satanic father is not known to Robert, but is known to us, the audience. The libretto does not make the fact completely explicit, but Meyerbeer in his music does. This was one of the work's revolutionary aspects, the way Meyerbeer used the orchestral accompaniment to expand and develop the drama. It was his use of the orchestra which helped lay the foundations for Wagner's use of the leitmotif.

Even in the ballet sequence, Meyerbeer showed his skill. To us, the idea of a ballet of ghostly nuns seems a bit hackneyed. But at the Paris Opera in 1831, especially with Marie Taglioni dancing in the first six performances, the effect was dramatic. Literally, because rather than just entertaining, Meyerbeer and Scribe furthered the plot using just pantomime and movement, in a way the episode is very filmic.

Wagner did not invent the idea of Gesamkunstwerk, the total work of art, though as with much else he adopted the idea, developed it and made it his own. But in France in the 1820's and 30's this idea was developing. An art of the future, encompassing all the arts, but united in one single masterpiece. In music, one influential critic looked forward to a masterwork which combined Rossini's vocal writing with Beethoven's orchestral genius.


When Robert le Diable appeared, it satisfied three of the criteria for one of these total works of art. There was dramatic action combining all of the arts, with a strong historical theme that could be seen as an allegory of modern man and his condition, and Meyerbeer's score combined Italian vocal style with Germanic orchestral development. The only crucial element lacking was an over-arching philosophy, something which Wagner would supply when he took over the concept.


Of a problem for us is that we are listening with ears which are conditioned by Wagner. Meyerbeer did not write continuously composed operas, they are still divided into numbers linked by recitative. To appreciate Meyerbeer properly, you have to concentrate on what he is, and try and forget what he isn't.

Meyerbeer was highly regarded during his lifetime. Berlioz considered his use of bassoons in the ballet sequence prodigious. And at the Paris Opera alone, the work was performed 758 times up to 1893. But it is a measure of how far Meyerbeer's star has fallen that there are so very few good contemporary recordings of his French operas available. The problem is partly that the pieces require large casts and significant resources, and the solo parts were written for the finest singers of the day.

Opera Rara and Naxos have done sterling work on the Italian operas, but he was found few contemporary champions for the French ones. This is starting to change, Les Huguenots has had some notable recent productions and is at Strasbourg later this year. Robert Le Diable was produced in Berlin in 2000, it is now appearing at the Royal Opera House (in a co-production with Geneva) for the first time since the 1890's.

Robert le Diable runs at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 6 to 21 December 2012. Further information from the Royal Opera House website.

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