Robert le diable’s 1831 opening was perhaps the most successful opera première of all time. Meyerbeer was lauded by luminaries like Chopin, Dumas, Balzac and Heinrich Heine, the opera was played in 69 cities in its first two years and spawned an entire genre of French Grand Opera. Why, then, has it fallen from grace, last night’s Covent Garden production being the first since 1890?
More about that in a moment: first, the story. Robert, Duke of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror, was so notoriously cruel that the legend grew up that he must have been the son of the devil. Robert le diable picks this up and places us in Sicily, where an exiled Robert, accompanied by the mysterious Bertram, is trying to regain fame, fortune, and the hand of the beautiful princess Isabelle. Robert is pursued by his childhood friend Alice, who is trying to deliver to Robert the dying words of his beloved mother, and her minstrel fiancée Rimbaud.
It’s all gloriously gothic in a Sir Walter Scott sort of way, and although it’s a long opera (five acts and over four hours), the pace never slackens. However, even if you like gothic, you have to accept that certain challenges will be presented to a 21st-century director by any opera whose centrepiece is a ballet of defrocked zombie nuns. Laurent Pelly, I thought, rose brilliantly. Like his production of Cendrillon last season, this one comes straight out of his childhood story books – the Castle of Palermo in Acts II and IV is the spitting image of the toy castle I had as a child growing up in Paris; the knights’ horses are giant plastic mouldings in primary colours, matched by the costumes and pointy hats of the ladies-in-waiting; backdrops evoke mediaeval woodcuts; chequered floor, castle, knights and crowns evoke a chessboard.
For the first two acts, the whole thing is hammed up with gusto, the armoured knights reminiscent of Monty Python’s Knights who say Ni, Daniel Oren conducting with a deliciously light touch, and none of the singers acting overly seriously. But the mood darkens in Act III: the nuns are choreographed as having real difficulty rousing themselves from the decades in their graves, with the primary mood spooky rather than salacious. The stage effects of the fires of hell and the struggle between angel and devil for Robert’s soul are superbly imaginative, as is the simple frame used for the chapel in Act V.
Musically, Robert le diable points the way to much that followed it. Orchestration is dramatic and varied, with plenty of tonal colour, but lacking the density of texture that Verdi and Wagner would later bring. Still, there are fine moments, not least a gloriously yearning obbligato for the pair of trumpets to accompany the Act V trio. In mood, Meyerbeer retains something of the excessive rum-ti-tum in the bel canto style, but is beginning to break free. He had the very best singers at his disposal, and it shows: the vocal lines are superb and highly demanding on the performers. The diabolical Bertram is a genuinely heroic-dramatic bass part – a heldenbass, if you like. And there is a trio in Act III with little or no orchestral accompaniment which provides a truly remarkable showcase for the singers.
Among five main roles all sung well, Patrizia Ciofi was outstanding. As Isabelle, she gets the classic prima donna’s immense opening aria, and she brought the house down. In the title role, Bryan Hymel demonstrated both vocal flexibility in Meyerbeer’s intricate ornamentation and the stamina to last a long opera in which he is on stage for the majority of the time. John Relyea was imposing, melodic and suitably demonic as Bertram, Jean-François Borras engaging and sweet-toned as the hapless Rimbaud. Marina Poplavskaya had been doubtful for the part of Alice – it was announced at one point that she had withdrawn from the role – and early on, she seemed to be struggling to maintain dynamic control. By Act III, she seemed to have overcome her problems.
So why did Meyerbeer and Robert le diable fall so far from favour? Partly, I blame the libretto. Eugène Scribe is horribly predictable to modern ears, with the inevitable travails of the well-meaning but maligned lover and the equally trite Star Wars “Luke, I am your father” moment. But also, Meyerbeer was the victim of a truly horrific campaign of invective by Wagner, Schumann and others. As Wagner’s star rose, he was thoroughly successful in destroying the reputation of his former benefactor – partly motivated by anti-semitism, partly by jealousy of Meyerbeer’s fabulous riches, partly in promotion of Wagner’s own symphonic style. Finally, in the years after World War I, bel canto in general was not a style that chimed with the prevailing aesthetic mood, bel canto Grand Opera even less so.
But if you can set musical snobbery aside and if you don’t take it all too seriously, this production makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening of opera. Hats off to the Royal Opera for exhuming this work in such style.