Thursday 10 November 2022

Finally getting the recording it deserves: Meyerbeer's first French opera from Marc Minkowsky, Palazetto Bru Zane and Bordeaux Opera

Meyerbeer Robert le Diable; John Osborn, Nicolas Courjal, Amina Edris, Erin Morley, Nico Darmanin, Orchestra National de Bordeau Aquitaine; Palazzo Bru Zane
Meyerbeer Robert le Diable; John Osborn, Nicolas Courjal, Amina Edris, Erin Morley, Nico Darmanin, Orchestra National de Bordeaux Aquitaine; Palazzetto Bru Zane
Reviewed 8 November 2022 (★★★★★)

Meyerbeer's first French opera finally receives the sort of modern recording that it deserves with a cast bringing flair and style to the music, along with Minkowski's intelligent direction.

Having recorded a selection of the byways of French grand opera, Palazzetto Bru Zane has finally taken the plunge and recorded one of the prime movers in the genre, Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable with forces from the Opéra National de Bordeaux, conducted by Marc Minkowski with John Osborn as Robert, Nicolas Courjal as Bertram, Amina Edris as Alice, Erin Morley as Isabelle and Nico Darmanin as Raimbaut.

Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable was the first of his large-scale French operas that ushered in the composer's effective domination of French Grand Opera genre. and created his international celebrity. Having spent eight years in Italy, Meyerbeer arrived in Paris in 1826 for the French premiere of his Italian opera Il crociato in Egitto and remained there. He did not throw himself into opera immediately, but finally he took the plunge with Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne as the librettists. Robert le Diable was originally planned as a three-act opera comique, but Meyerbeer persuaded Scribe to turn it into a five-act grand opera. This entailed some changes, reducing the essentially comic role of Raimbaut (who vanishes after Act Three in the final version). The opera premiered at the Paris Opera in 1831, following on from Auber's La muette de Portici (1828) and Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829) to usher in a remarkable age of Grand Opera, with Auber's Gustave III (1833), Halevy's La Juive (1835) and Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1836).

Though nowadays we might regard the plot as something of a curiosity, in fact Meyerbeer and Scribe were tapping into the hot topics of the day. In 1830, the reactionary regime of King Charles X and its attempts to recreate the Ancien Regime led to a revolution. Was it desirable to go back to the Middle Ages? And the idea of man's desire for liberty was reflected in Robert's sheer helplessness. Meyerbeer's contemporaries understood the work as a parable for the age. Scribe's libretto mixes in a variety of influences, the story of the adventurous development of a young hero encompasses the comic, an evocation of Middle Ages (very much au courant at the time), Romanticism and even Gothic, then there is the element of sin and salvation, the journey of a soul.  So, we have Robert's confrontation with his demon father Bertram and his angelic mother through Alice his foster sister, which develops into the dramatic final act, where his beloved, Princesse Isabelle (the image of perfect womanhood) persuades him onto the right path.  

There was also another element, the scandalous. The reviewer for the Revue des Deux-Mondes describes the famous Act Three ballet of the nuns:

A crowd of mute shades glides through the arches. All these women cast off their nuns' costume, they shake off the cold powder of the grave; suddenly they throw themselves into the delights of their past life; they dance like bacchantes, they play like lords, they drink like sappers. What a pleasure to see these light women.

It is, frankly, a mix that we do not quite appreciate nowadays (witness the critical reaction to Covent Garden's woeful 2012 production of the opera, see the review in The Guardian and my own review), but on disc we can be less concerned with dramaturgy and more with the musical values. Meyerbeer's might not have been a musical innovator, but he was a supreme synthesiser. Here we have Rossinian elements alongside other styles and influences, including a surprising interest in large scale structures, not to mention the wonderful Gothic elements and over the whole, Meyerbeer is not dogmatic, the form is as fluid as the libretto. And we have to remember that the opera was conceived of as an early proponent of Wagner's idea of the total work of art, the visual spectacle, the scenes of vivid stage drama and imaginative dramatic moments, were important too.

The recording was made in association with concert performances of the opera in Bordeaux, using a modern critical edition of the opera. It is a long piece, and cuts have been made. None are damaging, and we still get a lot of music though some of the more repetitious dance elements, for instance, are dropped. All the cuts are clearly indicated in the libretto. The result still runs to a little of three and half hours of music. And the cast is probably as fine a one as we might wish for. 

John Osborn makes for an engaging hero, at ease in the role's tessitura and able to swagger through the more bravura elements (if you can forgive a little fuzziness at the edges sometimes) along with a fine, soft-grained mezza-voce which creates some lovely moments. As his love interest, Erin Morley is a ravishing Isabella, producing roulades galore yet managing to seduce and hold our interest. And the fourth act is effectively devoted her series of duets with Osborn's Robert, where we get a vigorously bravura duo interrupted by a tender, lyrical cavatina. This is one of those moments of imaginative synthesis typical of Meyerbeer, and also a lovely melody to boot. 

Nicolas Courjal (the only Francophone singer amongst the principals) is Bertram, the friend who turns out to be the evil one, and Courjal manages to combine devilish swagger with a feeling of seduction and voice full of character. He is terrific in the Valse Infernale in Act Three, and in this act, he has two important confrontations, duos with Amina Edris' Alice and John Osborn's Robert. The first managing to successfully mix drama with bravura, the second full of wonderful swaggering bravura.  Amina Edris makes a touching Alice with a vein of strength which enables her to triumph at the end. From the outset, Edris sings with a focused mellow tone and nicely shaped phrases, there is a solidity to this Alice.

Around these three circulate a remarkably large cast. But of these, only Nico Darmanin's Raimbaut gets a real solo moment, and Darmanin is wonderfully engaging, seizing our interest from the very beginning of his opening ballade that sets out the story.

The result is far more dramatically engaging than I had remembered from live performance. Act Three certainly benefits from the trimming down of the ballet elements, so that it has far more of a coherent sweep to it.

Act III's Ballet of the Nuns in the 1831 première production
Act III's Ballet of the Nuns in the 1831 première production

The cast is mainly international artists (American, Egyptian/New Zealand, Maltese) but the French is lovely, clear and expressive. Minkowski and the orchestra are nothing short of heroic, the music certainly does not play itself and the conductor clearly has a great love and understanding for this style, something that comes over loud and clear. What I was interested in is how Minkowski manages to imbue drama into the more rum-ti-tum elements in Meyerbeer's repertoire, the times when the music can lapse into something that is very period. Here the style is right, we don't laugh, Minkowski shows us that this is a product of its times.

The orchestra is large, four bassoons, six horns, five trumpets, five trombones, two tubas/ophicleides, two harps and even an organ. It is the first of Meyerbeer's French scores where he takes full advantage of the resources of the Paris Opera and here is a score full of wonderful colours and imagination.

The disc benefits Bru Zane's usual care with accompany elements, so we have a fine article by Robert Letellier introducing Meyerbeer and Robert le Diable, and explaining exactly what was special about it, along with a second article by Pierre Sérié that brings out the visual element of the original production.

It is worthwhile remembering quite how early this work is. Bellini's Norma would only appear in 1831 and the work that catapulted Donizetti to fame, Anna Bolena was only appearing in 1830. Meyerbeer was building on the achievements of Rossini (his almost exact contemporary) and Auber to create a new operatic style for France, one that was hugely influential with later composers. If the style does not quite have the complex integrity of later 19th century operas that the composer influenced, then we should not hold it against Meyerbeer. This lovely recording helps to see things in context and features fine, virtuoso singing allied to engaging performances.

Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable
John Osborn - Robert
Nicolas Courjal - Bertram
Amina Edris - Alice
Erin Morley - Isabelle
Nico Darmanin - Raimbaut
Joel Allison - Alberti/Priest
Paco Garcia - Herald
Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine
Choeur de l'Opera National de Bordeaux
Marc Minkowski (conductor)

Recorded 20 to 27 September 2021, Opera National de Bordeaux
PALAZZETTO BRU ZANE 3CDs [78.36, 80.17, 58.15]

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