ROH Covent Garden 9th December – Robert Le Diable

G. Meyerbeer : Robert Le Diable

Act I set



G. Meyerbeer was to opera in the nineteenth century as Puccini was to the twentieth century. It was simply impossible to imagine the operatic repertoire without his masterworks – amongst which the most popular was neither Les Huguenots nor L’Africane but rather Robert le diable.

Given this it might seem surprising that an opera so often performed before 1900 should have virtually fallen into neglect. Meyerbeer’s grand opera was almost a cliche in its own time and so furnished Sir Arthur Sullivan with much musical pastiche. But even so imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery. And it speaks well of Meyerbeer’s mastery of the genre of grand opera that he should be so recognizably present in Sullivan’s pastiche later in the nineteenth century.

Robert le diable was conceived on the grandest of epic scales. Set in the world of medieval knights with all sorts of dramatic oddities – choruses of knights; a full blown tournament; a mountain scene; the ballet of wraith nuns – who in this strange production are more like raving nymphets from Ken Russel’s notorious film The Devils – and like any medieval tale it ends in a grand final scene in a cathedral.

For almost a generation and a half Robert le diable remained unassailed as the last word in both grand opera and grand spectacle until overshadowed and in modern times entirely eclipsed by Verdi’s still unsurpassed masterpiece, Aida.

In the 1830s this grand opera form is still in its early infancy. Grand court masks with their pyrotechnics and clever stagings with musical interludes and tableau were long dead. The eighteenth century masterpieces like Handel’s Julio Cesare were never performed. Don Giovanni is many things but not quite in this epic tradition. Meyerbeer with his contemporaries Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti therefore had to invent large parts of the genre anew. They created the form that we now might describe as grand opera.

Meyerbeer in Robert le diable certainly takes to a new level. That said dramatically Robert le diable isn’t Les Troyens; or Don Carlos; or frankly even Nabucco.  The story and characterisation are too slight. The music is pleasing rather than commanding. The opera and composer demand too little of both character and audience. That is not to say Meyerbeer’s music is meretricious or without depth. To some extent they are what they are because they are what composer intends them so to be. They are only a part conceptually of something conceived as a grand entertainment. The music – like the staging – was meant to astound.

Therefore, we should not expect these early grand operas dramatic refinement. They were really rather more like the great film spectaculars: more akin to say those great epic films of the forties and fifties and early sixties – The Ten Commandments; Ben Hur; Spartacus; and of course Cleopatra. These are not films we remember so much for any single thing but more for the overall effect. Indeed the scripts of these films were often as hopelessly overwrought and the performances often teetered on the edge of high camp. What is memorable is the complete spectacle.

The same is true for Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. It was conceived to take one’s breath away. The opera is full of vocal fireworks to complement the staged spectacle. In the first act Robert (Bryan Hymnel) has seven or so high C’s to hit. To be fair he hit most of them – but sometimes they sounded as if they were not always in the key of  C to me. Similarly, the heroine Isabelle in her first scene in Act II is given a testing cavatina replete with high notes – followed by a rousing cabaletta.  This is the sort of vocal gymnastics were the show-stoppers of their age as anyone who has listened to or watched the famous mad scenes from I Puritani or Lucia de Lammemore would recognise. The Devil – Robert’s father Bertram –  ably sung by John Relyea – easily the best performance of the afternoon – is the most fascinating dramatic creation. Meyerbeer sketches a devil that will become a stock-type often revisited by later composers – a malign monster with a humorous undertones.Gounod’s Méphistophélès in his Faust adds very little Meyerbeer’s striking original – though Faust’s devil survives in repertoire when Meyerbeer’s Bertram in Robert le diable has fallen so far from grace and favour.

The challenge therefore is for a modern staging of the opera to make the disparate parts of Meyerbeer’s confection hang together. It needs a production and sets and costumes, dramatic singing and competent acting. It needs a great chorus and great playing from the pit. Laurent Pelly instead gave us something that grates. The sets were poorly conceived and did not properly set the mood of the piece. This is the second time I’ve seen a castle in miniature playing a role in a ROH production ( the last was a miniature – Carthage in Troyens). It is an idea well past its sell-by date.The costumes expensively made from wonderfully rich materials but to no cohesive effect. The chorus sang forte and made a great sound but in Acts I And II it was given business worthy of the worst amateur production of Gilbert & Sullivan.

The nuns have it....

The nymphomaniac nuns in the ballet were risible. It seemed  neither director nor anyone else had much of an idea about what this opera was about and what to do with it. The program notes were full of interesting allusions to the operatic form as well as to Strawberry Hill Gothic. But if it was Gothic we were given it was more in the tradition of the Munsters meets Hammer Horror rather than Walter Scott or Mary Shelley.

It was a long afternoon – almost too long to endure –  though plenty in the auditorium seemed pleased enough and cheered; clapped; and shouted bravo. Once all the shouting dies down I suspect it will be another 100 years before we see Robert le diable staged again. And for that mercy Mr Pelly deserves some credit. This revival of what we were solemnly told was a a long neglected masterpiece from the pen of Giacomo Meyerbeer demonstrates, if nothing else, the virtues of benign neglect.



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