Last Sunday (9th) was spent in the company of a French operatic rarity, exhumed (quite literally in Act 3) by the Royal Opera after 122 years of absence from the Covent Garden stage. Robert le Diable by Giacomo Meyerbeer burst forth with a comparative absence of dark Gothic gloom, an over-abundance of brightly coloured horses and maidens, and a ballet of zombie nuns.
The combination of the production and the opera itself seems to have markedly divided opinion. On Twitter, snippets like “Mon Dieu! What a load of twaddle” and “Thanx 4 a rare opera but pls put it away 4 another 120yrs.” met with others who couldn’t wait to go back again. Broadly, I think views came down on the side of reservations rather than ovations.
But, do you know? I rather liked it.
I think the production did it no favours. In the sunny world of La Fille du régiment or L’Elisir d’amore, or in the satirical buffoonery of Offenbach, Laurent Pelly’s slighty cartoonish, illustrative production style works tremendously well, and I generally enjoy his work. He seems to me to have been baffled by Meyerbeer’s 1831 Gothick melodrama, and certainly distrustful of it. His production was bright where it should have had pools of shade; it displayed vast swathes of open stage where the Picturesque/Gothick sensibility demands complex perspectives and a dark, shifting air of mystery. Fundamentally, the production worked against the atmosphere and intentions of Meyerbeer’s very ‘period’ work. If ever an opera required a relatively ‘straight’ production, albeit elaborately executed, it is Robert le Diable.
Of course it is dated, but frankly not significantly more ridiculous in plot or clumsy in execution (to my ears) than a piece like Il Trovatore or Lucrezia Borgia. Given Meyerbeer’s important position in the development of the artform (even if reduced to a foil for Wagner’s subsequent revolutions), I would suggest that his works – and their associated ‘grand’ performance style – could do with a firmer foothold in the repertoire. I’m not advocating every other performance being L’Africaine or Les Huguenots, but the avalanche of Bohèmes, Traviatas and Toscas can surely give way to a bit of variety, even whilst acknowledging the relative box office certainty they bring.
The strongest element of the production was undoubtedly Act 3, with a tremendously effective fiery mountain giving way in the second scene to a slightly cluttered, slightly too evenly-lit burial chapel for the accursed convent. The nuns’ ballet was broadly effective, quite engaging, lacked some of the ‘bite’ that I’m sure it had for audiences in 1831 and, dare I say, lasted slightly too long. Surely this was a scene hovering in the back of Wagner’s mind when he drew up the Blumenmädchen scene in Parsifal?
Isabelle’s ‘mobile’ castle, which broke apart and wheeled itself (slightly tentatively and not entirely accurately) into different positions was not horrendous but nor was it particularly atmospheric. The final act traduced the trio between Robert, Bertram and Alice, representing the cosmic battle for Robert’s soul: frankly absurd painted cardboard ‘mouth of hell’ and fluffy ‘clouds of heaven’ for the opposing forces, the former ruining the closing passage by getting stuck on the floor as it receded gracelessly into the wings. The less said about the perfunctory opening scene’s staging the better, and we’ll certainly gloss over the primary-coloured plastic horses and associated damsels, complete with pointy-hats-and-veils.
Musically, the Royal Opera made a more convincing case. Daniel Oren’s reading seemed straightforward, perhaps a little flat: without knowing the score at all, I sensed a bit of missing grandeur in the dynamics, but it was a solid marshalling of the multitudes. Orchestra was on fine form and the chorus rose lustily to the demands placed on them.
Casting had been a dog’s breakfast in the run-up to opening night. Juan-Diego Florez was replaced by Bryan Hymel as Robert before the casting was even properly announced; Damrau dropped out as Isabelle due to pregnancy, Jennifer Rowley stepped in only to exit three days before the opening, to be replaced by Patrizia Ciofi; Poplavskaya dropped out as Alice a couple of weeks before, but was back in again a week later. In the end, this eventual team, joined by the stable engagement of John Relyea as Bertram, made up the central quartet and did so to great effect.
Relyea has made a career of these suave villains (Méphistopheles in Faust, Nick Shadow, the four villains in Contes d’Hoffmann), and made an effective Bertram, with a solid dark voice and good projection. Bryan Hymel seemed unflagging as Robert, just moments of strain in some of the longer high-lying passages marrying with some impressive ‘money notes’. The role seemed more a cousin of Enée in Les Troyens (his last assignment in these parts) than the sorts of roles that Florez essays, so the replacement seemed a wise move.
Ciofi, at three days’ notice, was tremendous. Hers is not a ‘simple’ voice, and there is a soft-grained quality in the middle register that can take time to adjust to, and means that her coloratura needs to be paid attention to, rather than pinning you to your seat with immediate effect. However, she was thoroughly engaging throughout, coupling a heart-stirring physical vulnerability to her intelligent singing, and she was truly magical in the Act 4 aria, bringing a stillness down on the audience as she floated some beautiful singing. Having had some reservations in the past about Marina Poplavskaya, the role of Alice seemed to suit her well. She is always stronger in the more forthright passages, which she despatched with clear, secure singing. Our ‘understanding’ was requested on her behalf before the last two acts, which may have explained a very audible crack on a soft-opening note during Act 3, but since that has never been her strong or reliable suit, I thought her singing was as good as I’ve heard her for quite a while. Supporting cast, most notably the Raimbaut of Jean-François Borras, were strong and well engaged in the drama.
So, all-in-all, an unconvincing and, crucially, unconvinced production of a rarity that, I think, amply justified its dusting off. It is a product of its time, and that was an important time in the development not just of opera, but of the artistic movements that shaped the C19th and beyond. Of course, different styles and sensibilities suit different people, but as someone with an avowed interest in the Picturesque/Gothic Revival, I’d happily see more of this sort of work.