Meyerbeer: Robert le diable

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 19 December 2012 3.5 stars

Julius CaesarWhen it premiered in 1831, Robert le diable was the world's first blockbuster; within five years of its first performance, Robert had already been mounted at the Paris Opera over 100 times and had traveled to London, Brussels, Berlin, Strasbourg, Dublin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Saint Petersburg, and New Orleans. The opera is about the conflicted Robert, whose father (the devil) is fighting against his sister for the ultimate reward: the loyalty of Robert's soul. But the opera's historical significance owes as much to its stylistic innovations as its contemporary (and now, clearly forgotten by most critics) political and social meanings. The "dazzling" effects--the Valse infernal and the use of the organ onstage, for example--mean as much to history as the opera's embodiment of a split in both French identity and political loyalty during the July Monarchy. Meyerbeer is considered to have influenced countless composers, including Wagner and Verdi, and when the opera's advancements in style are taken in tandem with its social significance, one wonders why it has fallen into obscurity so easily.

Indeed, Robert has not been seen at Covent Garden for over 100 years; make no mistake: it was a fine decision to resurrect a work that rests at a unique historical juncture and is made of such striking musical beauty and orchestral novelty. Naturally the production had to be entrusted to one who would (re-)position it as socially relevant: they chose Laurent Pelly. But I wonder if perhaps the scale has been tipped too far towards "gothic" melodrama, obscuring the work's historical and political significance. Of course, that description makes Pelly's production sound as though it was completely serious in its respect for the work's pioneering musical and theatrical innovations, characteristics that contemporary critics such as Fétis, Chopin, and even Hanslick received enthusiastically. Unfortunately, it was only as the opera progressed that the production (designed by Chantal Thomas and lit by Duane Schuler) improved in its scope and approach: the first two acts--populated by plastic, primary-color horses with chorus members dressed and painted in matching colors--were more like the presentation of a rainbow-colored farce (or, perhaps better described, a really terrible acid trip).

On the other hand, one senses a vague connection with Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (another bad trip), in which color is used as a narrative device and as a means of representing the aggrandizement and negation of postmodern stimuli: each person, for example, simultaneously brings attention to their presence on-stage whilst also making themselves irrelevant by blending in with the scenery. The Act II tableau begins, happens, and is over quickly, the music forgotten amid a sea of color. Read this way, Robert's placement--the archetype of the morally vacillating tenor--at the center of a modern conflict seemingly between history and meaning might be productively taken as a metaphor for the difficulty of finding the self in a world, no longer of good and evil, that consistently demands social obedience at the expense of individuality.

Perhaps that interpretation is too gratuitous considering that, four hours later, the final epic struggle for Robert's soul occurs in front of cardboard cutouts. Whatever the production's merits or lack thereof, the singing of Meyerbeer's soaring melodies nevertheless was expertly done throughout.

Bryan Hymel was a strong, bold, and well-defined Robert; often his tenacity and verve made his very difficult music seem easy. In particular, his navigation of the Act III duet with Bertram--in which he must toss off a descending chromatic scale starting on a high D-flat--was very impressive. Equally so was the coloratura executed by Patrizia Ciofi, whose "En vain j'espere" was magnificent for not only its color, but also its heartfelt cry of diminished hope in the face of reality. John Relyea brought an eerie realism to Bertram's swagger and sauntering demeanor; he dealt with the difficulties of high-Fs and Gs--especially in the final act--very well and with a commitment seen only in the best of singers.

Juxtaposed with this incredibly strong trio was the weaker Marina Poplavskaya, whose large voice doesn't really fit the flights of coloratura demanded of Alice. She was at best inconsistent and at worst sloppy. Raimbaut was sung by Jean-Francois Borras, whose lyrical voice rings beautifully—if ever-so-slightly-too pingy—at all times. The supporting cast all made good impressions as well. In retrospect the only true redeeming factor of the whole evening was unsurprisingly the singing, something that is happening with ever more frequency at Covent Garden.

Daniel Oren led the orchestra at his usual high standard, but that didn't stop the brass section from having considerable difficulty at times. Still, the novel orchestral colors and moments of thematic recall were emphasized very well indeed. The chorus deserves mention for dealing with their very active blocking and absurd costumes expertly; their singing was well balanced and for the most part quite clear, the best one can hope for in the grandest of grand operas.

Overall then, the production is certainly worth a glimpse but perhaps not worthy of revival any time soon; the only thing that rescues the audience from four hours of absurdity is the expert singing.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Bill Cooper